Belarusian dissident who was pulled off forced-down plane says he has been pardoned

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TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — The Belarusian state news agency on Monday reported that a dissident journalist who was pulled off a flight that was forced to land in the country and was later sentenced to eight years in prison says he has received a presidential pardon.

"I literally just signed all the relevant documents that I was pardoned. This, of course, is just great news,” Raman Pratasevich was quoted as saying by the news agency Belta.

Pratasevich was convicted and sentenced May 3 for organizing unrest and plotting to seize power.

He ran a Telegram messaging app channel that was widely used by participants in mass protests against the disputed August 2020 election that gave authoritarian Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko a sixth term in office.

The protests, which lasted for months, were the longest and largest demonstration of opposition to Lukashenko since he took power in 1994. Belarusian authorities responded to the demonstrations with a brutal crackdown that saw more than 35,000 people arrested, thousands beaten by police and dozens of media outlets and nongovernmental organizations shut.

Pratasevich was living in exile at the time, but he and his girlfriend were arrested in May 2021 when their Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania was ordered to land in the capital of Belarus, Minsk. Belarusian authorities said there was a bomb threat but later said no explosives were found on board.

Western countries condemned the flight diversion as tantamount to hijacking and imposed strong sanctions against Lukashenko and Belarus.

Pratasevich subsequently made several confessional appearances on state television that critics claimed were made under duress. He was later released from custody and put under house arrest.

His girlfriend, a Russian citizen, was sentenced to six years in prison in May 2022.

The Belarusian human rights organization Viasna says nearly 1,500 people have been put behind bars in Belarus in connection with opposition activities.

That includes Viasna's founder, Ales Bialiatski, one of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize laureates. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison in May.