US prosecutors on Thursday charged four Belarusian government officials with air piracy for diverting a Ryanair flight last year to arrest an opposition journalist, using the deception that there was a bomb threat.
The charges, announced by federal prosecutors in New York, relate to how a scheduled passenger plane traveling between Athens, Greece and Vilnius, Lithuania, on May 23 was diverted to Minsk, Belarus by air traffic control authorities. there.
“Since the dawn of powered flight, countries around the world have cooperated to keep passenger aircraft safe. The defendants broke those standards by diverting an aircraft to further the improper purpose of suppressing dissent and free speech,” US Attorney Damian Williams said in a press release announcing the charges.
Ryanair said Belarusian flight controllers told the pilots there was a bomb threat against the plane and ordered it to land in Minsk. The Belarusian military has flown a MiG-29 fighter jet in an apparent attempt to encourage the crew to comply with flight controllers’ orders.
Arrested journalist and activist Raman Pratasevich ran a popular messaging app that helped organize mass demonstrations against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Pratasevich, 26, left Belarus in 2019 and faced charges there for inciting riots.
In August, US President Joe Biden imposed new sanctions against Belarus on the one-year anniversary of Lukashenko’s election to a sixth term as head of the Eastern European nation, a vote that the US said would be a hit. the US and the international community, was riddled with irregularities.
The widespread belief that the 2020 vote was stolen triggered mass protests in Belarus that led to a further crackdown by the Lukashenko government against protesters, dissidents and independent media. More than 35,000 people were arrested and thousands were beaten and imprisoned. The protests lasted for months and died down only when winter came.
The defendants in Thursday’s court papers were identified as Leonid Mikalaevich Churo, general director of the Republican Unitary Enterprise of Air Navigation Services of Belaeronavigatsia, the Belarusian state air navigation authority; Oleg Kazyuchits, Deputy Director General of Belaeronavigatsia; and two Belarusian state security agents whose full identities were not known to prosecutors.
US prosecutors described the defendants as fugitives and said they faced charges of conspiracy to commit aircraft piracy, which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years in prison. Messages seeking comment were sent to the Belarusian embassy in Washington and the country’s UN mission in New York; their phones rang unanswered Thursday night.
US officials say they have jurisdiction in the case because US citizens were on board the flight.
After last year’s episode, the European Union swiftly banned Belarusian airlines from using airspace and airports in the 27-nation bloc, urged EU-based airlines to avoid flying over Belarus and imposed sanctions on some officials. Belarusians. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the plane incident amounted to a “hijacking”. Lithuania told all incoming and outgoing flights to avoid neighboring Belarus, while Ukraine’s leader moved to ban Ukrainian flights through the neighbor’s airspace.
But Belarus’s key ally, Russia, offered its support, arguing that Belarus acted in accordance with international procedures for bomb threats and saying the West reacted rashly. Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomed Lukashenko for talks days after the incident and nodded sympathetically when Lukashenko criticized EU sanctions, saying the bloc was trying to destabilize his country.