A court in Belarus on Friday sentenced a Russian law student whose friend a prominent dissident has been sentenced to six years in prison, nearly a year after the country’s authorities diverted a commercial flight to Minsk to arrest them.
In a statement, the Belarusian court said the student Sofia Sapega had been found guilty of inciting social hatred and illegally distributing private information. She had been under house arrest and was taken into custody in court to start a prison sentence.
Last May, Ms Sapega, 24, was traveling from Greece to Lithuania with her romantic partner, Roman Protasevich, a prominent opposition figure in Belarus, when Belarusian air traffic control services used a false bomb threat to divert their plane to Minsk, where they were both arrested.
The arrests sparked international outrage and Western countries imposed sanctions on Belarus. Their arrests came after months of street protests that failed to oust Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, often described as “Europe’s last dictator”.
Mr Protasevich, 27, was the editor of the NEXTA channel on the Telegram messaging app, which had emerged as a driving force behind mass protests against Mr Lukashenko.
Since his arrest, Mr. Protasevich, an outspoken opponent of the government for many years, appeared at televised press conferences to express his admiration for Mr. Lukashenko to express. He has said he was not forced to reconsider his position, but opposition leaders say his statements were made under duress. He has yet to be tried or convicted, and his legal status is unclear.
Hundreds of thousands of Belarusians protested against Mr Lukashenko’s rule after he was re-elected in a controversial election in August 2020. To stay in power, the embattled president resorted to brutal violence, with his security agents arresting and beating thousands of people.
Lukashenko also turned to his ally, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who expressed his support for the Belarusian leader and said he was ready to send security reinforcements. Those moves were viewed by many analysts as a game changer that kept local government officials in Belarus in line.
Mr Putin’s support came with a price, but he forced Mr Lukashenko to give up his usual game of playing Russia and the West against each other. Some experts have argued that Mr Lukashenko’s survival as president in 2020 paved the way for Mr Putin to use Belarus to carry out attacks on Ukraine earlier this year.