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Can Russia extradite its citizens jailed in Belarus? We asked an international law expert to weigh in.

Source: Meduza
BelaPAN / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

There are at least two Russian nationals in custody in Belarus in connection with criminal cases launched over opposition protests. Russian citizen Sofia Sapega was arrested on unspecified charges alongside Belarusian opposition journalist Roman Protasevich, shortly after the forced landing of a Ryanair plane in Minsk on May 23. And Russian national Yegor Dudnikov, who moved to Belarus about a year ago, is in custody on suspicion of organizing protests because he recorded voice-over for Belarusian opposition videos. Though the Kremlin’s spokesman has said that Moscow “may de jure raise the issue” of Sapega being handed over to the Russian authorities, Belarus’s Foreign Minister maintains that her trial will take place in Belarus. For a legal perspective on what might happen to these Russian nationals facing charges abroad, Meduza turned to Kirill Koroteev, the head of international practice at the human rights group Agora. 

“In my opinion, Sofia Sapega and Yegor Dudnikov didn’t do anything illegal and, in any case, they have the right to be presumed innocent,” says human rights lawyer Kirill Koroteev in conversation with Meduza. As he underscores, the charges against these two Russian nationals detained in Belarus remain unknown. However, there are two international conventions that could play a role in their trials or even bring about their extradition to Russia: the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) Moscow Convention on the transfer of persons sentenced to imprisonment, and the CIS Minsk Convention on legal relations. “Relations between Russia and Belarus [in this sphere] are regulated by these very documents,” Koroteev explained. 

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‘They can make her say whatever they want’ Lukashenko calls her a ‘terrorist’s accomplice,’ but Sofia Sapega is still awaiting charges, days after her arrest in Minsk

Regardless, Sofia Sapega and Yegor Dudnikov will have to be tried and convicted by Belarusian courts. Then, in the event that either Russia or the defendants put in an extradition request, a Belarusian court will have to verify whether the defendant’s act is also considered a crime under Russian law. “According to the 1993 CIS Minsk Convention, which regulates extradition for criminal prosecution, the Russian citizen’s acts must be recognized as crimes under both Russian and Belarusian law,” Koroteev emphasized. “That’s to say that only those whose acts are considered crimes in both countries are extradited.”

In other words, if a Russian citizen is imprisoned in Belarus for an act that isn’t considered a crime in Russia, they remain in Belarus to serve their sentence. “What’s more, if Belarus believes that crimes were committed on its territory, it has no obligation to extradite Sapega and Dudnikov to Russia for criminal prosecution,” Koroteev added. “In this case, the Minsk Convention stipulates that the trial takes place where the preliminary investigation is completed. In this case, this is also Belarus.”

That said, Belarus can still hand over a Russian citizen to the Russian authorities at Moscow’s request. According to Koroteev, “Practice shows that sentenced persons are usually handed over — but the decision will be up to Belarus.”

In the event that a convicted person is extradited to Russia, the Moscow Convention stipulates that “only the law of the country where the person was sent to serve their sentence will apply going forward.” In other words, Russian courts will determine the correctional facility where the extradited person serves their sentence, whether they’re eligible for parole or not, and so on. 

“In addition, a Russian court has the right to overturn the punishment established by the Belarusian court, if the convicted person is transferred to Russia,” Koroteev said, though he added that this would only be the case if a Russian court doesn’t consider the act in question a crime under Russian law.

Interview by Alexandra Sivtsova

Summary by Eilish Hart

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