U.S. authorities have charged four Belarusian government officials with hijacking a Ryanair flight en route to Lithuania last year to land in Minsk to arrest a leading opposition activist.
The U.S. Department of Justice on Thursday said officials had conspired in May to use a false bomb threat to divert Ryanair flight FR4978, which carried more than 100 passengers, including dissident Roman Protasevich, his partner and four American citizens.
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 surname remains unknown, and a second unnamed individual. All are based in Belarus and remain free, according to the DoJ.
“Since the advent of powered flights, countries around the world have worked together to keep passenger planes safe,” said Damian Williams, a U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, who was one of the officials who announced the charge. “The defendants shattered those standards by diverting a plane to further the improper purpose of suppressing discord and free speech.”
The indictment draws attention to a controversy that has sparked worldwide unrest and led to sanctions against Belarus, where strongman President Alexander Lukashenko has cracked down on independent journalists and opposition activists to retain power.
U.S. authorities claimed that Churo had personally warned staff at the Minsk Air Traffic Control Center of a bomb threat before taking off from Athens, and instructed them to divert the plane to Minsk in response.
According to the DoJ, Kazyuchits allegedly told air traffic authorities in Belarus to falsify reports of the diversion to conceal the manufacture of the bomb threat and the security services’ share in the flight route.
According to a post on a semi-official presidential channel on the messaging application Telegram around the time of the diversion, Lukashenko gave an “irrevocable order to turn the plane around and land it”.
Protasevich is the former editor of Nexta, a Warsaw-based media group that has played a prominent role in covering and leading the major protests that erupted against Lukashenko in 2020 after the dictator claimed victory in what was widely regarded as ” an undemocratic election.
The DoJ alleged Belarusian officials – 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 as they arrived at the terminal, with one group of passengers – including “Individual-2”, understood as Protasevich’s partner – being placed in a narrow corridor for about three hours, the DoJ claimed .
A person defined by the DoJ as “Individual-1” and considered Protasevich, as well as his partner, was then allegedly escorted away and detained.
The charge of plane robbery carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years imprisonment and a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
The Belarussian Civil Aviation Authority and the country’s State Security Committee could not be immediately reached for comment.