NEW YORK (AP), Four Belarusian officials were charged Thursday with aircraft piracy after diverting a Ryanair plane last year to arrest an opposition journalist. They used a ruse that there had been a bomb threat.
Federal prosecutors in New York announced the charges. They alleged that a passenger plane regularly scheduled to fly between Athens (Greece) and Vilnius (Lituania) on May 23rd was diverted by authorities at air traffic control to Minsk, Belarus.
“Since the dawning of powered flight, countries have worked together to ensure that passenger planes are safe. In a news release, U.S. Attorney Damian Williams stated that the defendants violated those standards by diverting an aircraft to further the inappropriate purpose of repressing freedom speech and dissent.”
Ryanair claimed that Belarusian flight control personnel told the pilots that there was a threat to the jetliner’s life and directed it to land at Minsk. In an apparent effort to get the crew to follow the flight controllers’ orders, the Belarusian military activated a MiG-29 fighter plane.
Raman Pratasevich was a journalist and activist who was taken into custody. He ran a popular messaging platform that helped organize protests against President Alexander Lukasenko. Pratasevich, 26, fled Belarus in 2019, and was charged with inciting riots.
On August 1, the U.S. President Joe Biden imposed new sanctions on Belarus in commemoration of Lukashenko’s sixth term as the leader of the Eastern European nation. This was a vote that the U.S., international community and others said was marred by irregularities.
The widespread belief that the 2020 election was stolen triggered massive protests in Belarus. This led to an increase in repressions by Lukashenko’s government against protesters, dissidents, and independent media. Over 35,000 people were detained and many were beaten and imprisoned. Protests continued for months and ended when winter arrived.
Thursday’s court papers identified Leonid Mikalaevich Chao, director general Belaeronavigatsia Republican Unitary Air Navigation Services Enterprise and the Belarusian State Air Navigation Authority; Oleg Kazyuchits as deputy director general Belaeronavigatsia; along with two Belarusian security agents whose identities were not disclosed to prosecutors.
The U.S. prosecution described the defendants in question as fugitives. They said that they were facing conspiracy to commit aircraft piratery, which carries a minimum sentence of 20 year imprisonment. The U.S. embassy in Washington received messages seeking comment; their phones did not ring Thursday evening.
The U.S. authorities claim they have jurisdiction because American citizens were on the flight.
The European Union quickly banned Belarusian airlines using its airspace and airports within the bloc of 27 nations. It also urged EU-based carriers not to fly over Belarusian territory and placed sanctions on certain officials. Ursula von der Leyen, President of the EU Commission, stated that the plane incident was a “hijacking”. Lithuania instructed all inbound and outgoing flights not to use the airspace of Belarus while Ukraine’s leader decided to ban Ukrainian flights through the neighboring airspace.
Russia, Belarus’s key ally, offered its support. He argued that Belarus had acted in accordance with international bomb threat procedures and said the West had reacted too quickly. Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, welcomed Lukashenko to talks just days after the incident. He nodded in support as Lukashenko lamented about EU sanctions and said that the bloc was trying destabilize his country.