The U.S. Department of Justice has charged four Belarusian government officials with conspiracy to commit aircraft piracy in the 2021 forced landing of a Ryanair flight to Minsk so that security services could arrest a dissident journalist.
In an indictment filed on January 20 in a New York federal court, prosecutors said the officials conspired to fake a bomb threat which forced the commercial flight on May 23 to make an emergency landing in Minsk while over Belarusian airspace on a regular flight from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania.
The Belarusian military scrambled a MiG-29 fighter jet to ensure the crew complied with the orders of flight controllers, whom the indictment says were under the control Belarusian security agents.
U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said that the indictment provides a detailed explanation of events surrounding the forced flight diversion, which was done for the purpose of “repressing dissent and free speech.”
According the indictment, Belarusian officials began to cover up what had happened immediately after the incident. The investigation was carried out by FBI counterterrorism and counterintelligence experts with the cooperation of several European countries.
According to the prosecutors, the goal of the elaborate scheme was to arrest dissent Belarusian journalist and activist Raman Pratasevich. His girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, was also arrested at Minsk airport.
Pratasevich ran a popular messaging app that helped organize mass demonstrations against strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka in the wake of the August 2020 presidential election that the opposition and West say was rigged to give him a sixth term.
Pratasevich and Sapega, who is Russian, face charges related to fomenting “mass unrest.” They are currently under house arrest.
Those charged by the U.S. Justice Department were identified as Leonid Mikalaevich Churo and Oleg Kazyuchits, respectively the director and deputy director of the Belaeronavigatsia state air navigation authority. Two officers from the Belarusian state security service who were not completely identified were also charged in relation to their role in directing air traffic control.
Churo personally communicated the fake bomb threat to staff at Minsk air traffic control and ordered them to divert the flight, according to the charges. Kazyuchits allegedly ordered air traffic authorities to falsify reports to conceal information about the fake bomb threat and diversion.
The defendants remain at large, but prosecutors said they would work with foreign partners to bring them to justice. If convicted, they face up to life in prison and a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years in prison.
At the time of the flight diversion, countries around the world condemned Lukashenka for ordering a “state hijacking” of a passenger aircraft.
Lukashenka’s regime is already internationally isolated over its brutal crackdown on the country’s pro-democracy movement in the wake of the disputed presidential election.
Britain and the European Union have already told airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace and banned the country’s flagship carrier Belavia. Several countries, including the United States, Canada, Britain, and the European Union, announced fresh sanctions against Belarus in response to the incident.
Lukashenka’s regime is already internationally isolated over its brutal crackdown on the country’s pro-democracy movement in the wake of the presidential election that the opposition and West say was rigged.
The European Union, United States, and other countries have slapped several rounds of coordinated sanctions on Belarus.