The former editor of Nexta Telegram channel and prominent Belarusian opposition figure Roman Protasevich announced on May 22 that he had been pardoned by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, the Russian newswire Tass reports.
In a video posted on the Minsk-Novosti agency's Telegram channel, Protasevich expressed his gratitude to the country and said that the president had issued a pardon on May 16. "I hope things will only get better in the future," Protasevich told local journalists.
Previously, on May 3 the Minsk Region Court had sentenced Protasevich to eight years in a maximum-security penal colony. He had been placed under house arrest until the verdict was due to come into effect on May 18. Protasevich's defence lawyers did not challenge the ruling.
Additionally, on the same day the court sentenced Nexta members Stepan Putilo and Yan Rudik to 20 and 19 years in prison respectively, in absentia.
The detention of Protasevich and Russian national Sofia Sapega took place on May 23, 2021 after a Vilnius-bound Ryanair flight from Athens was forced to land in Minsk due to a reported bomb threat, which later turned out to be a hoax. Protasevich and Sapega faced various charges, including organising activities that violated public order and inciting social hatred.
Sapega remains in jail, although as a Russian citizen negotiations are ongoing for her release and transfer to Russia.
It is not clear if Protasevich has been released or whether he will be allowed to leave the country.
Circumstances around the granting of a pardon are also confused, as Lukashenko was struck down by a mystery illness while attending the Victory Day parade on Red Square in Moscow on May 9 and rushed home.
Lukashenko was not seen for almost a week and was reportedly hospitalised, leading to a starburst of speculation that he was dead. However, the president reappeared on May 15.
Photographs and video was released by state news agency Belta on May 15 showing Lukashenko visiting a military command centre, dressed in military fatigues, with his left arm heavily bandaged. The footage also appeared to confirm rumours of his declining health, as his speech was strained with frequent pauses, and his voice sounded hoarse.
If Protesevich’s claim is correct then Lukashenko would have had to have signed the pardon almost immediately after leaving hospital.