Sofia Sapega, detained journalist Protasevich's girlfriend, 'confesses' in video

Sofia Sapega seen in an unknown location, in this still image taken from video released May 25, 2021.
Sofia Sapega seen in an unknown location, in this still image taken from video released May 25, 2021. © Telegram Channel "Zheltye Slivy"/Reuters TV

Sofia Sapega, the girlfriend of Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich, was detained with him on Sunday when the Ryanair plane they were travelling on was forced to land in Belarus. A video was released on Tuesday night in which Sapega makes a ‘confession’ that the opposition says appears to have been made under duress.

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Speaking fast and looking uncomfortable, Sapega, a 23-year-old Russian citizen, says in the video that she is an editor of a Telegram messaging app channel that publicised the personal data of Belarusian law enforcement personnel, a crime in Belarus.

"Today Sofia was interrogated. She was accused of committing a criminal offence. A preventive measure was chosen – detention for a period of two months," her lawyer Alexander Filanovich told Russian media. No other details were given. “The lawyers have signed non-disclosure agreements,” he said. Sapega is now in a KGB (Belarus Intelligence service) pre-trial detention centre in the Belarusian capital, he added.

In the video, Sapega states that she is the editor of the Telegram channel Black Book of Belarus, which publishes the personal data of the country's security forces.

Given her demeanour and manner of speaking during the video, supporters believe that she was forced to deliver a script. A similar video featuring Protasevich released on Monday was also met with scepticism from scholars, family members and human rights groups who say that there is little doubt that he was coerced. His father Dzmitry told Reuters he was alarmed as his son’s nose appeared to have been broken, “because the shape of it is changed,” and that his remarks were out of character.

Sapega said to the camera: "I am Sapega Sofia Andreevna, I was born on 10 February, 1998. I am citizen of the Russian Federation, I live in Lithuania – Vilnius.”

"On 23 May, 2021 I flew on the same plane with Roman Protasevich.”

"I am also editor of Telegram channel Chernaya Kniga which publishes private information about internal affairs officers."

Sapega is in her final year of international law studies at the European Humanities University (EHU) in Vilnius. She had been on holiday in Greece with Protasevich, a prominent critic of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko who has ruled Belarus since 1994.

On May 23, they boarded Ryanair Flight 4978 travelling from Athens to Vilnius, where Sapega was set to defend her thesis at EHU.

The passenger plane was forced to land in Minsk airport on Sunday after pilots were alerted to a suspected bomb, a hoax denounced by Western powers as "state piracy". Belarusian authorities sent a fighter jet to escort the plane to Belarus.

‘Made up conditions’

“As a result of a cover operation by the Belarusian authorities, the student was detained by the Administration of the Investigative Committee for the city of Minsk on groundless and made-up conditions,” a statement by EHU says. “We protest against the unjustified detention of the member of EHU community.”

The Russian foreign ministry said in a statement that Sapega was being detained "in connection with the suspicion of having committed, between August and September 2020, offences under several articles of the Belarusian Criminal Code".

26-year-old Protasevich faces charges related to his reporting of last August's disputed election and subsequent crackdown on mass opposition protests. He has said he fears the death penalty after being placed on a terrorism list.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the leader of the Belarusian opposition who operates from nearby Lithuania, said on Twitter that both Protasevich and Sapega appeared to be under psychological pressure.

Franak Viacorka, an adviser to Tsikhanouskaya, said on Twitter that Sapega's confession appeared to have been made under duress.

"She is guilty of being a friend of Roman. And they forced her to confess to 'crimes' she did not commit," he wrote.

No clear link has been proven between Sapega and Belarus beyond the fact that she is Protasevich's girlfriend.

Belarusian authorities will keep Sapega in a pre-trial detention facility for two months, the TASS State News agency reported, citing her father, Sergey Dudich.

Sapega's mother, Anna Dudich, said in an interview with Reuters on Tuesday that her daughter was entirely innocent of the claims against her.

Speaking from the Belarusian town of Lida, Dudich said she feared for her daughter's health and safety in detention.

"Of course, this is the main thing that I fear now," she said. "She is a very tough girl in a moral sense. She will get through, she will withstand, I'm sure of that."

Neither Dudich nor the lawyer have been able to contact Sapega since her detention, and have not been informed of any charges against her.

"My hopes are now probably based on a miracle and on the knowledge that my daughter is definitely not guilty of anything," Dudich said. "She simply showed up in the wrong place at the wrong time."

A passenger on the diverted flight told Reuters that, as Protasevich realised he was about to be arrested, he handed Sapega his laptop and phone for safekeeping.

On the eve of the flight, Sapega called her mother to tell her about her Greek holiday. Then she sent one final text after the plane was forced to land in Belarus.

"In Minsk she just wrote me 'Mama'. And that was it."

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)

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