NEW YORK (AP) — U.S. federal prosecutors on Thursday charged four Belarusian government officials with air piracy for diverting a Ryanair flight last year to arrest an opposition journalist, using a ruse of that there was a bomb.
Prosecutors announced the charges in federal court in Manhattan. They recount how a commercial passenger flight traveling between Athens and Vilnus, Lithuania, on May 23 was diverted to Minsk, Belarus, by Belarusian air traffic control authorities.
“Ever since motorized flight began, countries around the world have cooperated to keep passenger planes safe. The defendants shattered those standards by diverting an aircraft to further the improper purpose of suppressing dissent and free speech,” US Attorney Damian Williams said in a statement announcing the charges.
Ryanair said that Belarusian flight controllers informed the pilots that there was a bomb threat on the aircraft and ordered them to land in Minsk. The Belarusian military has deployed a MiG-29 fighter jet in an apparent attempt to encourage the crew to comply with flight controllers’ orders.
In August, President Joe Biden imposed sanctions on Belarus on the first anniversary of President Alexander Lukashenko’s re-election, in an election that the United States and the international community have said was riddled with irregularities.
Arrested journalist and activist Raman Pratasevich ran a popular messaging app that helped coordinate mass demonstrations against Lukashenko. Pratasevich, 26, left Belarus in 2019 and was facing charges in his country of inciting riots.
Lukashenko entered his sixth term in charge of the Western European nation last year. The widespread belief that the elections were rigged sparked massive protests in Belarus, which led to increasing crackdowns on protesters, dissidents and independent media by the Lukashenko regime. More than 35,000 people were arrested and thousands were beaten and imprisoned.
According to court documents, those charged on Thursday in New York were identified as Leonid Mikalaevich Churo, general director of Belaeronavigatsia Republican Unitary Air Navigation Services Enterprise, the Belarusian state air navigation authority; Oleg Kazyuchits, Deputy Director General of Belaeronavigatsia; and two Belarusian state security agents whose identity was unknown to prosecutors.