Belarus Opposition Activist Whose Flight Was Forced Down Is Sentenced to 8 Years

The Belarusian opposition activist who was arrested in 2021 after the government of Belarus forced his commercial flight that was transiting its airspace to land has been sentenced to eight years in prison.

Roman Protasevich, 27, was the editor of the Nexta channel on the Telegram messaging app, which was instrumental in organizing widespread protests against President Alexander Lukashenko after his disputed election victory in 2020.

The charges against Mr. Protasevich included organizing mass riots, calling for sanctions against Belarus, creating an extremist group and conspiring to seize power. Minsk District Court sentenced him to be incarcerated in a penal colony, according to a report on Wednesday by Belta, the Belarusian state news agency.

Like many activists, Mr. Protasevich fled into exile rather than endure the mass arrests and torture used by the Belarusian authorities to stamp out the protests.

In May 2021, Mr. Protasevich was on a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania when a Belarusian MiG-29 fighter jet forced the plane to land in Minsk. Security officials arrested him on the tarmac along with his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega.

Many human rights activists feared that he would face the death penalty because of the extremism charges against him, and Western nations accused Belarus of carrying out a hijacking disguised as a bomb threat to divert the plane. The European Union imposed new sanctions against Mr. Lukashenko, the country’s authoritarian ruler since 1994, for the incident.

After he was arrested, Mr. Protasevich made a confession on state television that included an apology for his actions, which his family said had been forced. His statements included praise for Mr. Lukashenko and an admission about seeking to topple him.

In May 2022, Ms. Sapega was sentenced to six years in jail for inciting discord. She is expected to be extradited to Russia.

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