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Companion of detained journalist may face charges in Belarus

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By Reuters

MOSCOW (Reuters) -Sofia Sapega, a Russian citizen who was detained along with Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich after their flight was diverted by a warplane to Minsk on Sunday, may face criminal charges in Belarus, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday.

The Belarus warplane intercepted a Ryanair passenger jet carrying Protasevich, a journalist critical of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, in an act denounced by Western powers as “state piracy”.

Sapega, a 23-year-old student who was travelling with Protasevich, was detained by Minsk “in connection with the suspicion of having committed, between August and September 2020, offences under several articles of the Belarusian Criminal Code,” a Russian Foreign Ministry statement said.

Belarusian authorities have extended Sapega’s detention for two months, TASS news agency reported, citing her father, Sergey Dudich.

A video posted on a pro-Lukashenko channel on the Telegram messaging app on Tuesday evening showed a young woman sitting in a chair who said she was Sofia Sapega.

The woman admitted that she was the editor of a social media channel which has disclosed the personal information of Belarusian law enforcement personnel, a crime in Belarus.

Sapega’s mother, Anna Dudich, said in an interview with Reuters on Tuesday that her daughter was innocent and simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Sapega feels well and has not complained of inappropriate treatment, the RIA news agency reported, citing Russia’s embassy to Belarus. It plans to take all measures to protect and support her, it added.

Sapega is a student at a university in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius. She was flying there with Protasevich after their vacation in Greece to defend her master’s thesis ahead of graduation, according to the university.

Furious Western powers prepared on Tuesday to heap sanctions on Belarus and cut off their aviation links with the former Soviet republic in response to the diversion of the Ryanair flight and arrest of Protasevich.

His social media feed from exile has been one of the last independent outlets for news about Belarus since a security crackdown on mass protests against authoritarian Lukashenko’s rule after a disputed election last August.

Regular demonstrations in Minsk started in August with protesters demanding Lukashenko quit because they said the vote was rigged to give him a landslide victory.

About 35,000 people have been detained since then and protests have subsided.

(Reporting by Polina Devitt, Anton Kolodyazhnyy and Marina Bobrova; writing by Polina Devitt; editing by Mark Heinrich and Grant McCool)