Belarus has released dissident journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, from jail and moved them to house arrest, in a possible sign that the country’s self-proclaimed president, Alexander Lukashenko, is looking to negotiate his way out of new sanctions.
Mr Protasevich and Ms Sapega have been detained by the erratic authoritarian since they were hauled off a Ryanair flight on 23 May in a hijacking operation. They have been held in dubious conditions since, with evidence of physical and psychological torture.
The news of the couple’s release to house arrest comes a day after the European Union announced a new round of sanctions on Belarus, targeting finance, communications, dual-use military technology, and key exports.
While stopping short of a full ban, which some had been calling for, on crucial exports such as oil and potash products, the sanctions nonetheless represent a serious challenge to the regime. EU ministers have also indicated they may be tweaked to include more of Belarus’s key exports.
In a televised response, Mr Lukashenko dismissed the sanctions as “powerless”, and said that Belarus had prepared for such an eventuality. At the same time, he told his officers to prepare for martial law if necessary.
“We need to show these bastards what for,” he said.
Ryhor Astapenia, an expert at the Chatham House think tank in London, said concerns about sanctions appeared to be the main driver behind Mr Lukashenko’s decision to release the two valuable political prisoners from jail.
“The EU has never shown such resolve in respect to sanctions before,” he said. “And the regime is doing its best to break that sanctions wave before it gets out of control.”
Another factor was that both Mr Protasevich and Ms Sapega appeared to be “cooperating fully” with the demands and whims of their captors: “Roman is agreeing to appear on television whenever asked, and making the right confessions, although God knows what the invitations look like.”
Ms Sapega’s parents told the BBC’s Russian Service they had already been reunited with their daughter at a restaurant in Minsk on Thursday evening. A lawyer for the Russian national suggested she was accompanied by a young man who “appeared to be Roman Protasevich”.
The two are believed to be living in separate apartments under the watch of security service agents.
Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus since 1994, clings to power despite apparently losing a presidential election last August. His refusal to concede defeat prompted huge protests across the country in the weeks after the vote.
A spokesperson for Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the exiled presidential candidate who almost certainly won last August’s elections by a landslide, told The Independent the development was unlikely to change “unprecedented” European resolve against the Belarusian regime.
“Lukashenko says it’s a concession, but it’s no more than a game,” the journalist Franak Viacorka said. “They are still under 24/7 control, with the KGB people living in the same room as Roman. They have essentially been transferred to a different prison.”
There is no sign that Mr Lukashenko is ready to drop charges against either of the prisoners. Both have been accused of violating Belarusian law on mostly absurd counts. Mr Protasevich, who is charged with organising mass riots, faces up to 15 years in jail.
Their move to house arrest had also been trailed by rumours of a more general release of political prisoners earlier this week. That has not yet been realised: scores of journalists, politicians, businessmen and activists are still behind bars and have little prospect of freedom.
That, said Mr Astapenia, was the most “awful” aspect of what appeared to be no more than a PR trick.
“They’ve beaten whatever they wanted out of Roman, essentially broken his soul, but the rest remain,” he said.
“For some reason, they hope the west will believe things have suddenly improved.”