Belarusian blogger arrested on Ryanair flight pardoned - state media

FILE PHOTO:Opposition blogger and activist Roman Protasevich arrives for a court hearing in Minsk

MOSCOW (Reuters) -Roman Protasevich, the Belarusian opposition blogger arrested in 2021 after his Ryanair overflight was forced to land in Minsk, was pardoned on Monday, the Belarusian state news agency BelTA reported.

"I have literally just signed all the relevant documents stating that I have been pardoned," BelTA quoted Protasevich as telling reporters. "This is, of course, great news."

Protasevich had been sentenced to eight years in prison this month for offences including inciting terrorism, organising mass disturbances and slandering Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

He had worked as a journalist at the news outlet Nexta, which reported extensively on mass protests against Lukashenko in 2020 following a presidential election that the opposition and Western governments denounced as rigged.

A clampdown around the time of the election resulted in all significant opposition figures being jailed or driven into exile.

Nexta's founder Stsiapan Putsila and former editor Yan Rudik were sentenced in absentia by the same court to 20 and 19 years in jail respectively. Belarus declared Nexta a "terrorist organisation" last year.

The circumstances of Protasevich's arrest in May 2021 prompted international outrage and triggered European Union sanctions against Lukashenko.

After his arrest, Protasevich was shown on state television tearfully confessing to involvement in anti-government protests and plotting to topple Lukashenko. The exiled Belarus opposition said the admissions were false and had been coerced.

(Reporting by Reuters; Editing by Kevin Liffey)