Eight years in a prison colony — that is the sentence handed down to Raman Pratasevich by a court in Minsk on May 3. The blogger was charged with organizing riots, incitement to hatred, founding an extremist group, conspiracy to seize power and publicly slandering President Alexander Lukashenko. Pratasevich, who turns 28 two days after the verdict, was under house arrest in Belarus for almost two years.
Pratasevich was arrested on May 23, 2021, while on a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius with his girlfriend at the time, Sofia Sapega. When the plane entered Belarusian airspace, controllers in Minsk warned the pilots that there was a bomb on board.
A Belarusian fighter jet escorted the plane until its forced landing in Minsk — where the blogger was immediately detained. The International Civil Aviation Organization later determined that it was an intentional false bomb alert.
Who is Raman Pratasevich?
Pratasevich was a freelance journalist in Belarus for Radio Liberty and Euroradio until 2020, followed by a position as editor-in-chief for the Telegram channel Nexta. Nexta had more than 2.1 million followers. It broadcast reports about the mass protests against Lukashenko and the rigged presidential election and police violence in August 2020. Demonstrations were announced on Nexta, too.
From the end of September 2020, Pratasevich directed the Belarus Golovnogo Mosga (Belarus in the Brain) Telegram channel. Both channels were listed as "extremist" by Belarusian authorities. Pratasevich lived in exile, first in Poland, then in Lithuania.
After Pratasevich's arrest, the Belarus ONT state broadcaster aired two interviews with him. In the first, bruises and traces of handcuffs were visible on his wrists, and in the second, Pratasevich said he felt "great." He made controversial statements and mentioned the names of people who joined chats where protest actions were discussed — some of them were in Belarus at the time. It is unclear under what circumstances the conversations were recorded. Pratasevich's lawyer unsuccessfully demanded a medical examination to rule out the use of physical force and torture.
'Voluntary cooperation' with investigators
In June 2021, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry held a briefing designed to convince journalists and diplomats that the forced landing of the Ryanair plane was "lawful." Surprisingly, Raman Pratasevich was present for the briefing after spending weeks in a KGB investigative prison. Pratasevich told the journalists that he was cooperating voluntarily with the investigators, but made it clear that he did not support Lukashenko.
Tatyana Korovenkova, a reporter for the BelaPAN non-state news agency, addressed Pratasevich: "Raman, I have sincere sympathy with you, as do many of your colleagues in Belarus. I can imagine what was done to you. I don't believe a single word you say. Hang in there."
Interviews and a wedding under house arrest
Despite the serious charges, Pratasevich was moved to house arrest, and had access to social networks and messenger services. In January 2022, he announced that he was cooperating with the so-called human rights center Sistemnaya Pravozashchita, an organization created by a pro-Russian activist during the migration crisis on the border between Belarus and the EU.
Pratasevich gave interviews and hosted streams. He told his followers that "only the authorities in question can give an assessment of certain events." He said he was "an ideological fool" in the summer and fall of 2020. He criticized the democratic forces and called the 2020 protests a mistake.
He said he regretted that Sofia Sapega happened to get involved, too. In May 2022, just three days after Sapega was sentenced to six years in prison, he announced he had married someone else.
Hostage turns supporter of the regime?
His trial started on February 16, 2023 in Minsk. Pratasevich was allowed to attend without handcuffs. He was not confined to a cage, which is unusual in Belarus. During the hearings, Pratasevich testified against his former colleagues, Nexta editors Stepan Putilo and Jan Rudnik, as well as against blogger Eduard Palchis and political scientist Valerya Kostyugova, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison in March.
In public, Pratasevich denied pressure from the Belarusian authorities. He said he regrets everything, and that his views have changed. Some of his statements prompted controversial reactions.
"Many condemn Pratasevich, but I can't," says Tatyana Korovenkova, the reporter who addressed him at the briefing two years ago. "I will not cast stones at him because I was not in his position. I don't know how I would have acted myself in such a situation," she says, adding that people who have not experienced such pressure have no moral right to condemn him. The prison conditions for political prisoners are appalling, she says, "hard to bear for someone who has not spent years getting ready to fight the regime."
"The main thing is to save yourself and get out of there as soon as possible with minimal damage to your health, mind and body," she argues.
People are of two minds about Pratasevich after his "confessions" and "expressions of remorse," says Grigory Nizhinkov, a political scientist. He says people should not forget his current situation, arguing the blogger's public behavior is due to the fact that he is a hostage in Belarus. "His behavior is the strategy he has chosen. It is difficult to condemn him or judge him in any way. After all, everyone knows what the Belarusian regime is all about," says Nizhinkov.
This article was originally written in Russian.