By Andrius Sytas
VILNIUS (Reuters) – The girlfriend of a Belarusian dissident, detained with him after the plane they were travelling on was forced to land in Belarus, graduated in absentia at a ceremony in Vilnius on Friday.
Sofia Sapega, 23, a Russian citizen raised in Belarus, was returning home from a two-week vacation in Greece with her boyfriend, dissident journalist Roman Protasevich, when their flight was forced to land in Minsk on June 29.
Their arrest sparked international outrage. The EU last week imposed economic sanctions on Belarus.
On Friday, dressed in gowns and graduation hats, students of the Belarussian university which operates in exile in Vilnius watched as Sapega’s mother and stepfather tearfully accepted the diploma on her behalf via video link from Belarus.
“We all feel resentful because this is so unjust and unfair,” said a student at Sapega’s law studies class who identified herself as Aliaksandra.
“We all support her endlessly, and we are very glad that we have achieved that she was issued the diploma. She is not alone.”
Sapega has been accused of causing unrest and faces up to 12 years in jail if convicted. Protasevich, accused of organising riots, could be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison.
Both were moved to home arrest in separate flats last week.
Sapega, whose family said she steered clear of politics and was arrested after being in the wrong place at the wrong time, was on her way to defend her master’s thesis, the final step before graduating, the university said on June 30.
“We decided to give her the diploma as an appeal to all people in the world to support our students”, Sergei Ignatov, rector of the university, told Reuters.
A total of five students at the university are political prisoners in Belarus, he added.
“Graduating and receiving the diploma was the dream of our daughter, and it is sad that we are doing this on behalf of all the work she put into it”, Sapega’s mother, Anna Dudich, told the ceremony.
She passed on a message from her daughter: “Everything is still in the future”.
(Reporting by Andrius Sytas in Vilnius; Editing by Angus MacSwan)