– A student captured by Belarus when it forced down a civilian airliner last year in what Western countries called an act of state piracy has released a jailhouse letter confessing to illegal actions and pleading for clemency.
Sofia Sapega, 24, a Russian citizen living in Lithuania, was arrested along with her then-boyfriend, exiled Belarus dissident journalist Roman Protasevich, when their Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius was forced to land in Minsk in May last year.
The incident drew condemnation from countries around the globe, apart from Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko’s main ally, Russia. Following it, European countries banned passenger air travel over Belarus.
Belarus later convicted Sapega of “inciting social hatred” and sentenced her to six years in prison.
Protasevich, former editor of a prominent opposition news outlet, renounced his political activism, was released from jail into house arrest and married someone else. The opposition in Belarus believes his recantation was coerced.
In her letter, which was published by the Russian news site RBC and which her lawyer confirmed was genuine, Sapega said that she understood the “illegality” of her actions, and requested that Lukashenko commute her sentence.
“Today I understand that I have been unfair, and that I looked at things from only one side,” Sapega wrote. “I want to note that in Lithuania, before my arrest, I wanted to stop my illegal actions because I already did not agree with them.”
Lukashenko has been ostracised by the West since an election in 2020 which the opposition said was stolen. With Russian financial and security support, he violently put down protests, and all major opposition figures are now jailed or in exile.
In recent months he has allowed Belarus to be used as a staging ground for Russia’s invasion of neighbouring Ukraine and launch site for Russian missile strikes, although Belarusian troops have not openly taken part in the war.