MOSCOW — A Belarusian opposition activist and his girlfriend, who were arrested after their airliner was forced to land in the country’s capital of Minsk, have been transferred to house arrest, their lawyer and parents said on Friday.
Both the dissident, Roman Protasevich, and his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, were released from jail as the European Union imposed sharp-toothed sanctions against 78 people and critical sectors of the Belarusian economy in response to what Western countries have called a “hijacking” of the Ryanair jet the two were traveling on.
They still face charges of helping organize the mass anti-government protests that erupted last year in Belarus after Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, the country’s brutal and erratic leader, claimed victory in an election that was widely dismissed as fraudulent. If convicted, Mr. Protasevich and Ms. Sapega could be sentenced to more than 10 years in the country’s notoriously harsh prison system.
In an interview and a news conference conducted after his arrest, Mr. Protasevich, 26, renounced his views and praised Mr. Lukashenko, whom he had earlier compared to Hitler and described as “a dictator.” Mr. Protasevich’s parents said he made those statements under duress.
Ms. Sapega, 23, appeared in a video in which she made an apparently forced confession of working on an opposition account on the social network Telegram that collected personal information on Belarusian law enforcement officers.
- Belarus in the spotlight. The forced landing of a commercial flight on Sunday, is being seen by several countries as a state hijacking called for by its strongman president, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko.
- Election results and protest. It came less than a year after Belarusians were met with a violent police crackdown when they protested the results of an election that many Western governments derided as a sham.
- Forced plane landing. The Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, was diverted to Minsk with the goal of detaining Roman Protasevich, a 26-year-old dissident journalist.
- Who is Roman Protasevich? In a video released by the government, Mr. Protasevich confessed to taking part in organizing “mass unrest” last year, but friends say the confession was made under duress.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, an exiled Belarusian opposition leader, said that while the pair’s transfer to separate safe houses was welcome news, they were still under the full control of Mr. Lukashenko’s security agents.
“House arrest is not freedom — they are still facing charges, their every step is still being watched,” Ms. Tikhanovskaya said in a statement. “It means they are still hostages.”
Speaking with the BBC, Mr. Protasevich’s father, Dmitri Protasevich, said that his son’s transfer from jail could be a part “of a political game.”
For Ms. Sapega’s parents, however, their daughter’s release from prison was a huge relief. Sergei Dudich, Ms. Sapega’s stepfather, said that they were able to see their daughter on Thursday in a restaurant in Minsk.
“You can imagine what you feel when your child was transferred from jail to somewhere where she has some basic freedoms,” Mr. Dudich said in an interview. “We are immensely happy.”
Last week, Mr. Dudich recorded a video statement in which he pleaded with Mr. Lukashenko to be merciful to his daughter-in-law.
Mr. Dudich and Ms. Sapega’s lawyer, Anton Gashinsky, said they believed the decision to release her was made by Mr. Lukashenko after he met with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia at the end of May.
Mr. Putin’s backing was a critical factor in Mr. Lukashenko’s fight to hold on to power last year. At the height of protests in September, Mr. Putin issued a $1.5 billion loan to Mr. Lukashenko and vaguely promised to intervene if the situation seemed to be getting out of control.
Mr. Lukashenko clamped down on the popular uprising against his 26-year rule with an application of violence unseen in Europe for decades. More than 35,000 protesters were detained, hundreds of activists were beaten and tortured, dozens of journalists were arrested and independent newsrooms were shut down. More than 500 political prisoners remain behind bars, according to Viasna, a human rights group in Minsk.
On Thursday, the European Union imposed sanctions against the main Belarusian industries, including petroleum products and potash, which produce badly needed hard currency. Belarus will now have to divert its export routes and rely on the Kremlin’s backing even more.
On Friday, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry promised to impose retaliatory measures in response to the sanctions, saying that Western nations have formed “an axis” against Belarus and are trying to “gradually suffocate” the Belarusian people.