The US Department of Justice (DOJ) has charged four Belarusian government officials with conspiracy to commit aircraft piracy.
The DOJ says on 20 January that the charges stem from the diversion of a regularly scheduled Ryanair flight which was en-route from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania on 23 May 2021, due to an purported bomb threat.
When the Boeing 737-800 - registered to Ryanair’s Polish division Buzz and operating as FR4978 - made an emergency landing in Minsk, Belarussian security forces arrested Roman Protasevich, a political activist who had been living in exile and was travelling on board the aircraft.
“We allege the defendants carried out an elaborate scheme to fake a bomb scare which forced an airplane to make an emergency landing in their country so they could arrest a dissident journalist,” Michael Driscoll, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s New York field office assistant director, says on 20 January.
The defendants are named as Leonid Mikalaevich Churo and Oleg Kazyuchits, high ranking officers of Belarusian state air navigation authority Belaeronavigatsia, and two state security officials whose full names are not known.
The four allegedly fabricated the bomb threat in order to arrest and silence the journalist and activist, who was living in exile in Lithuania at the time, according to the DOJ.
“During the course of our investigation, the FBI identified a detailed operation that subjected passengers from many countries, including the US, to the realities of terroristic threats. Not only is what took place a reckless violation of US law, it’s extremely dangerous to the safety of everyone who flies in an airplane,” the FBI’s Driscoll adds.
Four US nationals as well as more than 100 other passengers of various nationalities were on board, DOJ says.
“Since the dawn of powered flight, countries around the world have cooperated to keep passenger airplanes safe,” Damian Williams, the US attorney for the southern district of New York, says. “The defendants shattered those standards by diverting an airplane to further the improper purpose of repressing dissent and free speech.”
Belarus’s ministry of transport had said shortly after the incident that it did not coerce or pressure the crew to land in Minsk. It claimed that Minsk’s airport’s operator received a message in English, from an encrypted email service, allegedly from the Palestinian movement Hamas. It referred to a bomb on the aircraft.
Air traffic controllers passed the message on to the crew, which subsequently declared an emergency and landed in the Belarussian capital.
Opposition activity against Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko increased since the nation’s controversial election in August 2020. The head of the European Union’s delegation to the United Nations described that election as “neither free nor fair”, and a brutal government crackdown on protesters, opposition leaders and journalists ensued.
Leaders worldwide harshly condemned the Ryanair incident at the time, with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken calling it a “shocking act perpetrated by the Lukashenko regime [that] endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including US citizens”.
The DOJ says the four defendants “remain at large” and the US is requesting assistance from foreign partners to bring them to trial.
Aircraft piracy carries a minimum sentence of 20 years in prison, DOJ adds.