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Trial Begins for Belarusian Blogger Grabbed Off Diverted Flight

FILE - Belarusian dissident journalist Raman Pratasevich attends a news conference at the National Press Center of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Minsk, Belarus, June 14, 2021. He went on trial Feb. 16, 2023, facing charges including organizing mass unrest.

A Belarusian blogger arrested after Minsk diverted the commercial flight he was on in 2021 went on trial in the country’s capital Thursday.

Raman Pratasevich, who ran the news channel Nexta, is facing charges including organizing mass unrest and plotting to overthrow the government.

One of Nexta's founders, Stsiapan Putsila, and a site administrator, Yan Rudzik — both of whom no longer live in Belarus — are being in tried in absentia.

The Nexta channel, which ran via a messaging app, gained popularity as a way to share news and information in 2020 during the contested reelection of President Alexander Lukashenko and the mass protests that followed.

Authorities in November 2020 issued an arrest warrant for Pratasevich and Putsila, both of whom were already living outside the country.

Pratasevich was arrested in May 2021 when a bomb hoax was used to divert the Ryanair passenger jet he was traveling on from Greece to Lithuania.

The U.S. and the European Union denounced the move as a hijacking and imposed sanctions against Lukashenko's government.

A U.N. investigation into the diverted flight determined in 2022 that the purported threat used to divert the plane was "deliberately false and endangered its safety."

The report by the International Civil Aviation Organization concluded that Belarus committed “an act of unlawful interference," in diverting the flight.

The U.N. agency oversees rules on civil air space but has no power to impose sanctions, AFP reported.

Since his arrest, Pratasevich has appeared on state television in what analysts have described as forced confessions. The blogger has been held under house arrest while awaiting trial.

Last year, a court convicted his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, who was also on the diverted flight, for inciting social hatred. She was sentenced to six years in prison.

The Belarus Embassy in Washington did not respond to VOA’s email requesting comment.

‘Crackdown on free speech’

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists has called on Belarus to drop the charges against Pratasevich and his absent co-defendants.

In a statement, Gulnoza Said of CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program said the charges are “a cynical display of the vindictive nature of the Belarusian government, which is determined to retaliate against those who covered the 2020 protests.”

In an email Friday, Said told VOA, “My observation is that the authorities stopped even pretending that it's not a crackdown on free speech and free media. The masks are off. Lukashenko doesn't seem to bother with his image in the West anymore.”

Belarus is one of the worst jailers of journalists globally, after mass arrests of media workers who covered the protest movement, according to the CPJ and other rights organizations.

More than 30 journalists are behind bars, either awaiting trial or serving sentences, according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists. Two of those detained contributed to VOA sister network Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Speaking about the mass arrests, Volha Khvoin, who is on the board of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, told VOA last month, “This is their sacrifice for freedom of speech.”

Said told VOA that the CPJ is concerned about the plight of journalists in Belarus, adding that “lengthy prison sentences have also become a norm.”

“The trials are mostly held behind closed doors. Lawyers are forced to sign a nondisclosure agreement so [they] cannot reveal any information,” she said. “The authorities seem to want to teach a lesson to the Lukashenko regime's critics by showing that anybody voicing dissent will face a very harsh punishment.”

Belarus has a poor record for media freedom. The watchdog group Reporters Without Borders describes it as “Europe’s most dangerous country for journalists until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”

The country ranks 153rd out of 180 countries on the RSF Press Freedom Index, where No. 1 signals the best environment for media.

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press.