On May 28, a judge from the Partizansky Regional Court in Minsk rejected an appeal filed by 23-year-old Russian citizen Sofia Sapega’s lawyers against her detention. Sapega was arrested shortly after the forced landing of a Ryanair flight on May 23. According to friends and relatives, she was taken into custody because she’s dating Roman Protasevich, the Belarusian opposition journalist and former head of the Telegram channel Nexta who was on the same flight. Police in Minsk arrested him, too. According to the news outlets Novaya Gazeta and the BBC Russian Service, the authorities are considering multiple charges against Sapega — including “organizing mass riots’’ and “inciting hatred or enmity.” More than five days have passed since Sofia was arrested, but she still hasn’t been formally charged. Meduza special correspondent Kristina Safonova reports what we currently know about Sapega and her case.
“I’m asking you not to ruin the girl’s life. She’s still got her whole life ahead of her,” Sofia Sapega’s mother, Anna Dudich, told the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets after officials in Minsk arrested her daughter, following the forced landing of a Ryanair flight on May 23.
Dudich has since given several interviews. Each time, she repeats the same thing: Her daughter is just a normal student — not a criminal.
Sofia Sapega is 23 years old. For the first six years of her life, she lived with her parents, Anna Dudich and Andrey Sapega, in Vladivostok. After they divorced, Sofia and her mother moved to Belarus. She graduated from high school in Lida, then enrolled in European Humanities University (EHU) in Vilnius, Lithuania, where she’s majoring in “international and EU law.” Sapega has residence permits in both Belarus and Lithuania.
“Sofia didn’t leave [Belarus for Lithuania] for political reasons — she was still a child when she left. There were just a lot of kids studying there, they told her about it, and she became interested,” Anna Dudich told the BBC Russian Service.
According to Maksimas Milta, the head of communications and university development at EHU, 95 percent of the university’s students are from Belarus. Initially, the school itself was also located in Belarus. Founded in 1992, EHU was the first independent university in post-Soviet Belarus. In 2004, however, its license was revoked. Officially, this was due to a lack of suitable facilities, but the real reason was the university’s refusal to follow Belarusian teaching standards. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko commented said at the time, “We prefer to prepare our elite students, the future leaders of our country, ourselves, in Belarusian institutions, including regional ones. We don’t accept pressure on Belarus and won’t tolerate it in any form.” A year later, EHU opened its campus in Vilnius.
When protests started after the Belarusian presidential election in August 2020, the university was paying close attention, says Milta: “More than 40 EHU graduates have been arrested since August. About 10 students were subjected to administrative detention and jailed for 10-15 days. Two graduates and two students are political prisoners — they’re being held in pre-trial detention centers to this day.”
At the same time, according to Milta, “everyone expressed their attitude towards what was happening in different ways.” “Some shared their thoughts on social media, others took part in protest rallies, and others sent donations,” he explained. “But Sofia was different in that she didn’t stop prioritizing her studies.”
Current EHU students said similar things about Sapega, telling Deutsche Welle that she never spoke openly about her political opinions. She wasn’t an activist, they said. “I never heard about any political activity of hers,” Yekaterina Shafranovich, a long-time classmate, told Belsat.
Another person who’s studied with Sapega described her as “sort of an apolitical person.” “I never saw any posts or reposts connected with anything. I know she’s a Russian citizen, and it’s even occurred to me that she might be interested in something [political],” the student told Belsat.
“Sofia was always in the know about all the latest news in Belarus and around the world. But she was more interested in law than politics. I know she was really upset and troubled by human rights violations, because that’s her major,” one of Sofia’s friends confirmed. Sofia is “a very calm person, melancholy, an introvert, loves to draw, athletic, and she’s interested in the philosophy of Martin Heidegger,” the friend added. Other students who know Sapega called her “very responsible,” “non-confrontational,” “friendly,” and “smart.”
Sapega’s parents don’t think their daughter was particularly interested in politics, either. According to Andrey Sapega, his daughter enjoys fashion, traveling, “those new gadgets,” and reading. “She was constantly studying. Sofia is articulate, well-read, and speaks English well. She was constantly working on herself. There was none of that reaching a high level and then quitting. She was always learning something. She drew, and she was into philosophy. She’s a well-rounded person,” says Sapega’s mother, Anna Dudich.
Sofia also did an internship at the Belarusian-language Polish cable channel Belsat, which faced serious pressure from the Belarusian authorities for its protest coverage last year. Sapega was getting ready to defend her Master’s thesis, titled “The Right to Marry: Universal and Regional International Legal Standards,” before graduating.
“She worked intensely all year on this thesis,” EHU head of communications and university development Maksimas Milta told journalists. “Sofia wasn’t the kind of student who does everything at the last minute. She went on vacation because all of her work was ready for the defense. She wanted to relax.”
Arrest in Minsk
On May 23, when Anna Dudich learned that a plane flying from Athens to Vilnius had landed in Minsk, she immediately called her ex-husband. “Anna knew who our daughter was flying with. […] She immediately understood how this would end,” Andrey Sapega told Kommersant.
According to Sapega’s friends, Roman Protasevich and Sofia Sapega didn’t like to discuss their personal lives. It was clear, however, that the two met at a bar in Vilnius about six months ago.
According to Anna Dudich, her daughter didn’t understand at first exactly whom she was dating. “She only said positive things about him. My daughter is a very selective person. She always talked about Roman, about what a brainiac he is. Very calm, very even-tempered,” Dudich told RT.
Dudich told Deutsche Welle that the couple’s relationship was “serious.” “There was love between them, that much is clear. As far as marriage, I don’t know whether she was ready yet. Our Sofia is a very serious lady.”
One of Sapega’s friends said the same thing. “As far as I know, the young couple’s relationship was warm, trusting.” Her father, however, disagreed. “They fought, broke up, got back together. Sofia is a pretty closed-off person, and she didn’t always share the circumstances of her personal life with me. However, of course, I could figure out what was happening based on indirect signs, her mood, and the way she talked to me.”
Before her departure from Greece, Sofia called her mother and said she was pleased with her vacation. Once she was in the Minsk airport, she managed to send Dudich a single text message with one word: “Mom.”
There were no incidents in the aircraft cabin; the pilot just made a sharp turn and announced that they would be landing in Minsk, according to one of the other passengers. The Belarusian authorities later claimed that the flight crew had made the decision on their own — after Hamas supposedly “threatened to blow up the plane over Vilnius.” A MiG-29 fighter jet took off to “accompany” the plane at President Lukashenko’s command. The bomb threat claim has not been verified, and Reuters has confirmed that a message emailed under the name of Hamas was not sent until after the plane was rerouted to Minsk.
According to one of the passengers, Protasevich gave Sapega his computer and phone before the plane landed. Another passenger claimed that Protasevich said to the flight attendant, “Don’t do this, I’m a refugee — they’ll kill me.” “We have to. We have no choice; it’s in Ryanair’s legal agreements,” the flight attendant allegedly responded.
In Minsk, all of the passengers were forced to undergo inspections. One passenger observed that security officers were watching Protasevich from the beginning and that they searched his bags twice.
In addition to Protasevich, Sofia Sapega and another three people never returned to the plane’s cabin, said one passenger. According to data from the Lithuanian Prosecutor General, 126 passengers departed from Athens, but only 121 arrived in Vilnius. The Lithuanian government has opened an official investigation under two articles of its Criminal Code: plane hijacking and illegal detention.
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is conducting its own investigation, the preliminary results of which are expected to be released on June 25. European authorities have called for EU member states to cut off communication with Belarus, and a number of Western airlines have stopped flying through Belarusian airspace.
Vague accusations and strange confessions
The day after Roman Protasevich and Sofia Sapega were arrested, the Belarusian pro-government Telegram channel Zheltye Slivy published a video in which Protasevich says that he’s cooperating with the investigation and confesses to “organizing mass riots in the city of Minsk.”
“These aren’t his words. He’s intimidated and deeply worried. I think they beat him. The left side [of his face] looks like it’s covered in makeup, and his nose has been powdered (possibly broken),” Roman’s father told The Insider.
In addition to organizing riots, Protasevich is charged with “inciting social hostility” towards the authorities and the police. The Belarusian KGB has added him and Nexta co-founder Stepan Putilo to its list of individuals “involved in terrorist activity.” It’s also unclear where Protasevich is currently located; his parents reportedly received information about his hospitalization, while the Belarusian police insist that he’s in a Minsk pre-trial detention center.
Sofia Sapega was initially placed in solitary confinement at Okrestina. On May 25, however, she was moved to a KGB pre-trial detention center and jailed for two months, pending trial, though the authorities haven’t yet revealed the actual charges against her. According to Russia’s Foreign Ministry, Sapega is suspected of “committing crimes under several articles of the Belarusian Criminal Code between August and September 2020.”
That same day, May 25, a statement from Sofia similar to Protasevich’s confession video appeared on the Zheltye Slivy Telegram channel. In the footage, she identifies herself as an editor for the Telegram channel Black Book of Belarus, which “publishes the personal information of officials from internal affairs bodies.” Shortly thereafter, the pro-government YouTube channel “Belarus Is a Country for Life” started using clips from both videos in its ads. On May 27, YouTube deleted the videos.
“While [Sofia’s] in this position, all public statements and confessions are meaningless,” Andrey Sapega told journalists. “It’s clear they can make her say whatever they want.”
He’s convinced that his daughter was simply forced to memorize the words she recited. Sofia’s mother doesn’t believe the video, either. “I’ve already watched it 10 times, and I have no idea what’s happening. This information is shocking for me. Either this is a dream, or it’s a setup,” says Anna Dudich.
According to Sofia’s parents, she didn’t participate in the 2020 protests. “On election day, she was at the dacha on the outskirts of Lida with her mother. Then she was in the hospital. Her health wasn’t great, so she stayed in bed for a few days in an apartment she was renting. Then she left for Vilnius. This can easily be verified from the stamps in her passport,” says Andrey Sapega. “We don’t have the right to vote in Belarussia [because we’re Russian citizens],” Anna Dudich explained. “Our family has never been involved in politics. We lead a simple, normal life.”
Several of Sapega’s classmates also confirmed that she arrived in Lithuania in early August. EHU students don’t believe she has any connection to the Telegram channel “Black Book of Belarus,” and they demand her “immediate release.” One of her classmates observed that Sapega “doesn’t resemble herself” in the video: She usually speaks differently and uses different facial expressions. “It’s just crazy to think Sofia would be involved in deanonymization,” says Konstantin, another one of Sapega’s classmates.
Maksimas Milta, the head of communications and university development at EHU, also found the video unconvincing. “That isn’t the same Sofia we saw in our university. […] She was most likely under duress when this video was made,” he told Moskovsky Komsomolets.
Milta also refuted the authenticity of an alleged page from Sapega’s thesis with the title “The Telegram Channel ‘Black book of Belarus’ as a Creative Project of a ’New Belarus.’” “First of all, it says that Sofia’s department is called ‘International Law,’ but we don’t have a department with that name. Secondly, it used her patronymic, but at EHU, we don’t use patronymics. And finally, it says that she’s a fourth-year student when she’s actually a fifth-year student. All these lies are part of an attempt to tarnish her reputation,” said Milta.
Sapega’s family and friends all believe she was only arrested because she was with Roman Protasevich. “As you know, you don’t have to have done something to be accused of something,” one of Sofia’s friends told Novaya Gazeta.
Meduza reached out to the administrators of the Telegram channel “Black Book of Belarus” for comment but received no response.
Behind closed doors
No official charges have been brought against Sofia Sapega, though sources told Novaya Gazeta that Sapega is accused of two felonies: organizing mass riots involving incidents of violence (under Belarusian Criminal Code article 293, section 1, punishable by 5 to 15 years in prison) and organizing group actions involving blatant disobedience of government officials (article 342, part 1, punishable by fine or arrest, or probation or imprisonment for up to three years).
Citing a source familiar with the case, the BBC Russian Service reported that Sapega will also face a third charge: inciting hatred or enmity on the basis of race, nationality, or religion (under Belarusian Criminal Code article 130, section 3, punishable by up to 12 years in prison).
According to information obtained by the BBC Russian Service, Sapega initially refused to cooperate with officials in Minsk on May 25, but investigators “skillfully talked her into it, using psychological techniques.” The BBC’s source also mentioned that KGB agents “have many different means of getting someone to talk, including injections or mixing drugs into food that induce people to describe events that never happened.” Additionally, the source didn’t rule out the possibility that Sapega was promised deportation to Russia if she cooperated.
According to sources who spoke to Novaya Gazeta and the BBC Russian Service, Sapega testified in the presence of a court-appointed attorney. But Sapega’s lawyer, Alexander Filanovich, was not allowed to participate in the interrogation, sources say. When asked about this by Meduza, Filanovich himself responded, “No comment.” He previously reported that he had signed a non-disclosure agreement.
Filanovich told Russian state news agency TASS that he and another two lawyers are representing Sapega, but he refused to name these attorneys when speaking to Meduza. Sapega’s mother has also declined to reveal the other lawyers’ names. For five days after Sofia’s arrest, not one of her chosen legal representatives was able to meet with her. On May 26, the lawyers were finally granted permission to see their client, but an actual meeting proved impossible due to a “lack of offices.”
Only the Russian consul has been able to visit Sapega — he was allowed to see her on the evening of May 25, after her interrogation. Citing Russian Embassy press attaché Alexey Maskalev, RIA Novosti reported that Sapega feels fine and has no complaints about “improper treatment.”
“They won’t tell us what the conditions in the detention center are like. We don’t know who’s in there with her in that cell. Essentially, we don’t know anything,” Sofia’s mother told journalists. “The Russian consul said she’s floored. Well, how could she not be? How else would you feel in an institution like that? God forbid you end up there. Sofia’s a young girl. She’s basically still a kid.”
During a meeting with members of the Belarusian parliament on May 27, Alexander Lukashenko likened Sapega to a “terrorist’s accomplice.” “And the fact that we arrested him, a citizen of Belarus, as well as his girlfriend, who had our residence permit, at the airport — that’s our sovereign right,” said the president, warning that “everyone will answer for their crimes in accordance with the law.”
Anna Dudich reached out to the Russian Presidential Administration and the Russian Foreign Ministry websites for help with freeing her daughter. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia might “de jure raise the issue” of Minsk handing over Sapega during a meeting between Lukashenko and Putin in Sochi on May 28. “In any case, the Russian side will do everything necessary to protect the rights of the Russian citizen. Given the special nature of our countries’ relationships, this protection might be carried out in a variety of ways,” said Peskov.
Sofia Sapega was not brought to court on May 28, when a judge dismissed her appeal against her arrest. According to Sapega’s lawyer Alexander Filanovich, the Partizansky regional court session was hidden from the public in accordance with the norms of the Belarusian Criminal Procedure Code.
“As Sofia’s lawyer, I’m obligated to state that I have not yet been acquainted with the documents related to the arrest. Nor were they present in court,” Filanovich explained on Friday.
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Translation by Sam Breazeale