The U.S. Department of Justice has charged four Belarusian government officials with conspiracy to commit aircraft piracy in the forced landing of a Ryanair flight to Minsk last year that led to the arrest of a dissident journalist and his girlfriend.
In an indictment filed on January 20 in a New York federal court, prosecutors said the officials conspired to fake a bomb threat that forced the commercial Athens-to-Vilnius flight on May 23 to make an emergency landing in the Belarusian capital while over the country’s airspace.
The Belarusian military scrambled a MiG-29 fighter jet to ensure the crew complied with the orders of flight controllers, whom the indictment says were under the control of Belarusian security agents.
Countries around the world condemned Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka for the "state hijacking" of a passenger aircraft to arrest Belarusian journalist Raman Pratasevich and his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega.
The bomb threat was "deliberately false," according to the UN civil aviation agency's report on the incident.
In a report released on January 17, a fact-finding team set up by the UN's International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to probe the incident concluded that the bomb threat was "deliberately false."
Belarus's version of what transpired -- including contact between Minsk airport, air traffic control, and the pilots -- did not hold up to scrutiny and the bomb threat was false, the report said, adding that no person or state has been identified as the source of the illegal hoax.
Meeting with military officials in the western Belarusian region of Brest, Lukashenka gave a completely contradictory assessment of the report and reiterated that “there was no interception, forced landing, or rerouting of the Ryanair plane by Belarus."
U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said that the indictment provides a detailed explanation of events surrounding the forced flight diversion, which was done for the purpose of "repressing dissent and free speech."
The indictment said Belarusian officials began to cover up what had happened immediately after the incident. The investigation was carried out by FBI counterterrorism and counterintelligence experts with the cooperation of several European countries.
According to the prosecutors, the goal of the elaborate scheme was to arrest Pratasevich.
Pratasevich ran a popular messaging app that helped organize mass demonstrations against Lukashenka in the wake of the August 2020 presidential election that the opposition and West say was rigged to give him a sixth term.
Pratasevich and Sapega face charges related to fomenting “mass unrest.” They are currently under house arrest.
Those charged by the U.S. Justice Department were identified as Leonid Mikalaevich Churo and Oleg Kazyuchits, respectively the director and deputy director of the Belaeronavigatsia state air navigation authority. Two officers from the Belarusian state security service who were not completely identified were also charged in relation to their roles in directing air traffic control.
Churo personally communicated the fake bomb threat to staff at Minsk air traffic control and ordered them to divert the flight, according to the charges. Kazyuchits allegedly ordered air traffic authorities to falsify reports to conceal information about the fake bomb threat and diversion.
The defendants remain at large, but prosecutors said they would work with foreign partners to bring them to justice. If convicted, they face up to life in prison and a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years in prison.
Lukashenka's regime is already internationally isolated over its brutal crackdown on the country's pro-democracy movement in the wake of the presidential election that the opposition and West say was rigged.
Britain and the European Union have told airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace and banned the country's flagship carrier Belavia. The EU and countries including the United States, Canada, and Britain announced fresh sanctions against Belarus in response to the incident.