‘My daughter wasn’t involved in any political activity’ Parents of Russian student arrested alongside Belarusian journalist in Minsk appeal to Putin for help
After the Belarusian authorities diverted a Ryanair plane to Minsk on May 23, they arrested two of its passengers: Belarusian opposition journalist Roman Protasevich and his 23-year-old girlfriend, Russian student Sofia Sapega. Russian diplomats weren’t allowed to visit Sapega in detention until May 25 — two days after her arrest. That same day, Sapega’s mother told RBC that she had written to the Russian presidential administration asking for help securing her daughter’s release. According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, Sapega stands accused of “committing a criminal offense” in Belarus in August–September 2020. Though this was the peak of the opposition protests against Alexander Lukashenko winning his sixth consecutive presidential election, Sapega’s parents insist that she never attended the demonstrations and left the country shortly after election day. In fact, they told reporters that their daughter doesn’t have any involvement in politics at all.
Sofia Sapega, a 23-year-old Russian national who was detained in Minsk after the forced landing of Ryanair flight on May 23, has been remanded in custody for two months. On May 25, her lawyer, Alexander Filanovich, told RBC that she is under suspicion of “committing a criminal offense” in Belarus, but he couldn’t specify the exact charges because the Belarusian authorities had him sign a non-disclosure agreement. Sapega is in custody at a pre-trial detention center run by Belarus’s security service (the KGB); the Belarusian Investigative Committee’s Main Investigative Directorate is investigating her case.
According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, Sofia Sapega is suspected of crimes allegedly committed in August– September 2020. This period marked the peak of the opposition protests that erupted in Belarus after the country’s election authorities announced that Alexander Lukashenko (Alyaksandr Lukashenka) had won his sixth consecutive presidential election (Lukashenko has been in power since 1994). The Russian Foreign Ministry didn’t offer any further details about allegations against Sapega, except to say that she’s facing charges under several articles of the Belarusian Criminal Code. Citing a source familiar with the criminal case, the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported that Sapega stands accused on two counts: organizing mass riots involving incidents of violence and organizing group actions involving blatant disobedience of government officials. However, the Belarusian authorities have yet to confirm the charges.
Sofia Sapega’s parents maintain that she has no involvement in politics. Her mother, Anna Dudich, told the BBC Russian Service that Sapega didn’t take part in the opposition protests in Belarus and that she left the country for Lithuania shortly after last year’s presidential election. According to Dudich, Sapega was with her family at a cottage on the day of the election (August 9) and she left Belarus around August 11 or 12. “She’s suspected of participating in riots? One hundred percent a lie. She wasn’t here [in Belarus],” Dudich said.
“My daughter wasn’t involved in any political activity. She’s working on graduating from European Humanities University, she’s just about to defend her [thesis] project, she was supposed to receive her diploma in the near future,” Sapega’s mother said in a separate comment to the state-owned Russian television channel Rossiya 24. Earlier, Sapega’s father told the state-funded broadcaster RT that his daughter “never participated in protest rallies and showed no interest in politics at all.”
Anna Dudich told RBC that she had made a written appeal to Russian President Vladimir Putin via the website of the presidential administration, asking for help securing her daughter’s release. Sapega’s mother also appealed to the Russian Foreign Ministry for assistance via its website. Dudich told RBC that contrary to reports from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the foreign ministry never contacted their family. As of May 25, they had only been in touch with the Russian consul in Belarus. “We were at the Embassy in Minsk yesterday and yes, he [the consul] offered us our pick of a lawyer,” Dudich explained.
Two days after Sofia Sapega’s arrest, a pro-government Belarusian Telegram channel released a video of her in custody. In the 30-second video, she claims to be the editor of the opposition Telegram channel “Black Book of Belarus,” which “publishes the personal information of officials from internal affairs bodies.” Sapega didn’t disclose any details about her case.
A Russian consul was granted permission to visit Sofia Sapega on May 25. After the diplomat met with her, the Russian Embassy in Belarus’s press attaché told RIA Novosti that Sapega is feeling well and hasn’t complained about any “ill-treatment.” “From the very beginning of the situation, we have been taking all the necessary actions and measures to protect the interests of our citizen,” press attaché Alexey Maskalev said.
Earlier that day, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov commented on Sapega’s case, telling journalists, “We’re proceeding from the categorical need to ensure rights of the Russian citizen […] We are hoping that she will be soon released by the Belarusian authorities, if of course she did not break any laws.” Peskov underscored that he didn’t have any information about the charges against Sapega at that time.
Asked about media reports that Sapega’s mother had asked the Russian president for help, Peskov told reporters that he had no knowledge of the Kremlin receiving an appeal “dejure or defacto.” “I only know that it [the appeal] was voiced somewhere in the media. I can only say one thing here: that of course, all consular and legal assistance will be provided for the Russian citizen,” Peskov replied. “The Belarusian side said that charges were brought against her in connection with involvement in illegal actions […] in addition, we saw her confession. But in any case, she has the right to a defense lawyer and of course, all necessary assistance will be rendered in ensuring her legal defense.”
Update. Late on May 26, lawyer Alexander Filanovich told the Russian state news agency TASS that Sofia Sapega still hasn’t been allowed to meet with her defense team. “Two more lawyers have joined the case. Visitation permits were obtained by two lawyers at 10:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. When the lawyer with permission arrived at the KGB pre-trial detention center there were four people in the lawyers’ queue. Due to a lack of free offices, the lawyer didn’t get to meet with Sofia,” Filanovich said. He also added that Sapega’s defense team has filed a complaint about her detention with the Belarusian Investigative Committee, on the grounds that her lawyers haven’t been provided with documentation regarding her arrest.
Sofia Sapega was arrested in Minsk along with her boyfriend, Belarusian opposition journalist Roman Protasevich (Raman Pratasevich). The detentions took place after the Belarusian authorities forced a Ryanair flight travelling from Athens to Vilnius to divert to Minsk due to an alleged bomb threat, which later proved false. Many European countries believe the Belarusian authorities hijacked the passenger plane in order to arrest Protasevich. The former chief editor of the prominent Belarusian opposition outlet Nexta, Protasevich now edits the opposition Telegram channel Belamova (Belarus Golovnogo Mozga). In Belarus, he is facing charges of organizing mass riots, which is punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
A pro-government Telegram channel published a “confession video” of Roman Protasevich on May 24. In the video, the journalist says that he’s “cooperating” with the investigation and that he had confessed to organizing riots in Minsk. During an address on May 26, Lukashenko made his first public remarks about the diversion of the Ryanair passenger flight. Seemingly describing Protasevich and Sapega, the Belarusian president said there was “one extremist and his female accomplice” on the plane. He then accused them of plotting “a massacre and a bloody coup” in Belarus.
Translated and updated by Eilish Hart