US charges Belarus officials with piracy in forced landing of Ryanair plane

Diversion manufactured to allow Belarusian forces to arrest journalist, indictment says

The Ryanair 737-8AS was diverted to Minsk last May with some 170 passengers aboard. Photograph: EPA

The Ryanair 737-8AS was diverted to Minsk last May with some 170 passengers aboard. Photograph: EPA

 

Federal prosecutors in Manhattan have charged four officials of the government of Belarus with conspiracy to commit aircraft piracy in the 2021 forced landing of a Ryanair flight in Minsk, where a prominent opposition journalist aboard the plane was seized.

The charge was contained in an indictment filed on Thursday in the US district court. In response to a purported bomb threat, Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’s authoritarian president, sent a fighter jet on May 23rd to intercept the Ryanair Boeing 737-800 carrying some 170 passengers from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania – among them journalist Roman Protasevich.

The forcing down of the plane and his seizure led to international outrage. The bomb threat was a fake, orchestrated by senior Belarus officials who were seeking to detain Mr Protasevich in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, the indictment says.

The move was seen as a marker of how far Mr Lukashenko, with the support of Russian president Vladimir Putin, was willing to go to repress dissent in his country. The indictment does not charge Mr Lukashenko.

The plane diversion was condemned by Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney at the time, who called for those who carried it out to be called to account.

In reaction to Minsk’s diversion of the Ryanair jet on May 23rd, EU leaders barred Belarusian airlines from the bloc’s airspace, and urged EU-based carriers not fly over the country.

The officials named in the indictment on Thursday were Leonid Mikalaevich Churo, director general of Belarus’s state air navigation authority, his deputy and two officers of the country’s security services. According to the indictment, the defendants were critical participants in the conspiracy to divert the Ryanair flight and force it to land.

‘Fabricated threat’

“There was, in fact, no bomb on board the aircraft,” the indictment said. “Belarusian government authorities fabricated the threat.” Churo communicated the false bomb threat to the staff at the Minsk air-traffic control centre, even before the flight took off from Athens, and directed the control centre to instruct the flight to divert to Minsk in response to the purported threat, the indictment said.

It said the purpose of the plot to divert the plane was to allow Belarusian security services to arrest Mr Protasevich and his girlfriend. He had been living in exile in Lithuania and was wanted by the Belarusian government.

The indictment also charges that after the forced landing, Belarusian government officials engaged in a cover-up, which included directing Belarusian air traffic authorities to falsify incident reports regarding the diversion of the flight in order to conceal the fabrication of the bomb threat and the role Belarus’s security services played in the scheme.

The indictment said the defendants worked with other officials, including the senior air-traffic controller at the Minsk air-traffic control centre. Damian Williams, the US attorney for the southern district of New York, said in a statement: “We are committed to holding accountable these central participants in a shocking conspiracy to commit aircraft piracy that not only violated international norms and US criminal law, but also potentially endangered the lives of four US citizens and scores of other innocent passengers on board.”

Williams credited FBI counterterrorism and counterintelligence investigators for what he said was the “prompt and public explanation” in the indictment of what actually happened to the flight. The defendants are based in Belarus and remain at large, authorities said. – This article originally appeared in The New York Times