US authorities have charged four Belarusian government officials with plane hijacking for forcing a Ryanair flight bound for Lithuania to land in Minsk last year so they could arrest a top opposition activist .
In May, the US Department of Justice said officials conspired to use a fake bomb threat to divert Ryanair flight FR4978, the car carried more than 100 passengers including Roman Protasevich, his partner and 4 American dissidents.
The officials charged are Leonid Mikalaevich Churo, director general of Belarus’ state aviation navigation agency; Oleg Kazyuchits, deputy director general of the agency; and two officers from the Belarusian state security service: Andrey Anatolievich, whose last name has yet to be identified, and the second unnamed. All are based in Belarus and are still large, according to the justice ministry.
“Since the dawn of motorized flight, nations around the world have worked together to keep passenger aircraft safe,” said Damian Williams, US attorney for the Southern District of New York, who is on the board. number of officials who published the indictment, said. “The defendants broke those standards by diverting an aircraft to further the illegitimate purpose of suppressing dissent and free speech.”
The indictment focuses attention on a controversy that caused a global uproar and led to punishment against Belarus, where powerful president Alexander Lukashenko has cracked down on independent journalists and opposition activists to stay in power.
US authorities allege that Churo personally warned staff at Minsk air traffic control about a bomb threat before the flight took off from Athens, and instructed them to divert the plane to Minsk in response.
According to the justice ministry, Kazyuchits allegedly told air traffic authorities in Belarus to falsify a redirection report in order to conceal the fabrication of the bomb threat and the role of the security service in determining the diversion. flight reroute.
According to a post on the semi-official presidential channel on the messaging app Telegram around the time of the diversion, Lukashenko gave the “irreversible order to turn the plane around and land”.
Protasevich is a former editor of Nexta, a Warsaw-based media group that played the role of prominent role included and directed the massive protests that broke out against Lukashenko in 2020 after the dictator declared victory in an election widely seen as an undemocratic election.
The justice ministry alleges that Belarusian officers – some wearing ski masks and armed with guns – met the plane’s passengers on the runway in Minsk and asked them to board an airport bus.
The justice ministry alleges that they were detained upon arrival at the station, with a group of passengers – including “Individual-2”, understood to be Protasevich’s partners – placed in a narrow corridor for about three hours. .
A person identified by U.S. officials as “Individual-1” and understood to be Protasevich, as well as his partner, was then allegedly escorted away and detained.
The offense of aircraft piracy carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years in prison and a maximum penalty of life in prison.
The Belarusian state aviation navigation agency and the country’s State Security Committee were not immediately available for comment.