Belarus has sentenced ex-editor-in-chief of the NEXTA Telegram channel, Roman Protasevich, to eight years in prison on May 3 after he was found guilty of plotting a coup d'état.
The Belarusian Supreme Court also sentenced in absentia the channel's founder, Stepan Putilo, to 20 years and ex-editor Yan Rudik to 19 years.
NEXTA Telegram channel, along with its subdivisions NEXTA Live and Luxta, were recognised as terrorist organisations and banned in the country in April 2022. The channel played an active role in co-ordinating and covering the mass protests that swept Belarus following the massive falsification of the presidential elections in the autumn of 2020 that returned Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to power.
In November 2021, Protasevich and Putilo were added to the list of terrorists in Belarus, and Protasevich was later detained in May 2021 when a commercial Ryanair aircraft flying from Athens to Vilnius was forced down after it crossed into Belarusian airspace.
The plane was escorted by a MiG-29 fighter jet to Minsk airport, where Protasevich was detained, causing an international outcry.
His Russian girlfriend Sofya Sapega, who was detained with him, was also sentenced to six years in prison for inciting hatred and illegal actions with the personal data of security forces and officials of the country.
Sapieha filed a petition for pardon addressed to the President of the Republic, Alexander Lukashenko, but was refused by him on the grounds that she had not served at least half of her sentence.
She later agreed to be extradited to Russia for possible further punishment. The Prosecutor General's Office of Belarus gave preliminary consent to her extradition on April 14, and the final decision will be made by Belarus after the court in Russia makes a decision on this issue and sends it to the competent authority in Minsk.
On May 24, the Presnensky Court of Moscow will consider the issue of Sapieha's extradition. Protasevich's case has raised international concerns about press freedom in Belarus, with several countries imposing sanctions on Belarus in response to his detention. The EU has also imposed economic sanctions on Belarus, with some countries banning flights to and from the country.