US authorities have charged four Belarusian government officials with aircraft piracy for forcing a Ryanair flight bound for Lithuania to land in Minsk last year so that they could arrest a leading opposition activist.
The US Department of Justice on Thursday said the officials had conspired in May to use a fake bomb threat to divert Ryanair flight FR4978, which was carrying more than 100 passengers including dissident Roman Protasevich, his partner and four US nationals.
The officials charged were Leonid Mikalaevich Churo, director-general of the Belarusian state air navigation authority; Oleg Kazyuchits, the agency’s deputy director-general; as well as two officers at the Belarusian state security services: Andrey Anatolievich, whose last name remains unknown, and a second unnamed individual. All are based in Belarus and remain at large, according to the DoJ.
“Since the dawn of powered flight, countries around the world have co-operated to keep passenger aeroplanes safe,” said Damian Williams, US attorney for the southern district of New York, who was among the officials who announced the indictment. “The defendants shattered those standards by diverting an aeroplane to further the improper purpose of repressing dissent and free speech.”
The indictment refocuses attention on a controversy that sparked global uproar and led to sanctions against Belarus, where strongman president Alexander Lukashenko has cracked down on independent journalists and opposition activists to maintain power.
US authorities alleged that Churo personally warned staff at the Minsk air traffic control centre of a bomb threat before the flight took off from Athens, and instructed them to divert the aircraft to Minsk in response.
According to the DoJ, Kazyuchits allegedly told air traffic authorities in Belarus to forge reports about the diversion so as to hide the fabrication of the bomb threat and the security services’ part in rerouting the flight.
According to a post on a semi-official presidential channel on messaging app Telegram around the time of the diversion, Lukashenko had given an “irrevocable command to turn the plane around and land it”.
Protasevich is the former editor of Nexta, a Warsaw-based media group that played a prominent role in covering and directing the huge protests that erupted against Lukashenko in 2020 after the dictator claimed victory in what was widely viewed as an undemocratic election.
The DoJ alleged Belarusian officers — some of whom were wearing ski masks and holding firearms — met the plane’s passengers on the tarmac in Minsk and ordered them to board airport buses.
They were detained upon arriving at the terminal, with one group of passengers — including “Individual-2”, understood to be Protasevich’s partner — placed in a narrow hallway for about three hours, the DoJ alleged.
A person defined as “Individual-1” by the DoJ and understood to be Protasevich, as well as his partner, were then allegedly escorted away and detained.
The aircraft piracy charge carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years in prison and a maximum penalty of life in prison.
The Belarusian state air navigation authority and the country’s State Security Committee could not immediately be reached for comment.