US charges 4 Belarusian officials with air piracy for hijacking Ryanair flight


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Security with a sniffer dog checking passengers’ luggage in front of Ryanair flight 4978, which was forced to land in Minsk on May 23, 2021, and security officials arrested opposition figure Roman Protasevich who was on board . U.S. prosecutors on Thursday charged four Belarusian government officials with air piracy in connection with the incident. Photo by EPA-EFE

January 20 (UPI) — New York City prosecutors on Thursday charged four Belarusian government officials with one count of hijacking planes for their role in last summer’s crash-landing of a Ryanair flight in the purpose of arresting a dissident journalist.

On May 23, Ryanair flight 4978 from Athens, Greece to Vilnius, Lithuania, with some 170 passengers on board, including four Americans, was forced to land in Minsk after entering Belarusian airspace under escorting a MiG-29 fighter jet in response to an alleged bomb threat on board.

Once landed in the capital, the exiled dissident journalist Roman Protasevich was arrested.

The incident prompted international condemnation and new rounds of sanctions against the government of embattled President Alexander Lukashenko, which had applied crackdowns against protesters and his political opposition to quell mass protests that erupted after his widely elected election. discredited in 2020 for a sixth term. .

The indictment says the bomb threat was a pretext to bring down the plane to gain access to Protasevich, a journalist critical of the Belarusian government who was living in Lithuania and wanted by Minsk security forces for having fomented mass unrest with his reporting.

“There were, in fact, no bombs on board the aircraft,” the indictment states. “Belarusian government authorities fabricated the threat as a way to exert control over the theft.”

The indictment accuses senior Belarusian government aviation officials Leonid Mikalaevich Churo and Oleg Kazyuchits and Andrey Anatolievich Lnu and Fnu Lnu, state security officials, of participating in the Belarusian government conspiracy aimed at diverting the theft and the ensuing cover-up.

Prosecutors came to the charge based on evidence collected by the FBI, including technical data on the flight path, eyewitness information as well as a senior air traffic controller from the Minsk air traffic control center in charge of communicating with the flight identified as ATC-1 in the indictment. and audio and video recordings as well as US passengers.

“Since the dawn of powered flight, countries around the world have cooperated to keep passenger aircraft safe,” U.S. Attorney Damian Willians of the Southern District of New York said in a statement. “These defendants broke those standards by hijacking an aircraft for the illegitimate purpose of suppressing dissent and free speech.”

The indictment accuses the Respondent State’s security officials on the morning of May 23 of informing two senior air traffic controllers that there was a bomb on a flight that would enter Belarusian airspace and that should be diverted to Minsk.

“The flight had not yet left Athens when Churo and Fnu Lnu went to the Minsk ACC and passed on the alleged threat,” the charging document states. “Even so, passengers on the flight were not required to disembark in order for the plane to be searched, and the flight was cleared to depart Athens.”

After the bomb threat was reported, the ATC-1 supervisor forbade them from notifying Ukrainian authorities of the alleged threat to ensure the plane would be shot down in Minsk for the purpose of arrest Protasevich, prosecutors said.

The charging document also states that Fnu Lnu did not direct the plane via ATC-1 to land at the nearest airport because a flight is subject to a credible bomb threat and received l order to continue to the Belarusian capital, although it is about 174 miles away. at the time and closer to several other airports.

Prosecutors also accuse the defendants of participating in a conspiracy cover-up that included making false statements after the fact at press conferences and ordering staff to create false incident reports, including tampering with some to misrepresent the fact that the bomb threat had been received in much the same way. when the flight entered Belarusian airspace and omitting that Fnu Lnu was present during the operations.

“During our investigation, the FBI identified a detailed operation that subjected passengers from many countries, including the United States, to the realities of terrorist threats,” FBI Deputy Director Michael Driscoll said. “Not only is what happened a reckless violation of US law, it is extremely dangerous to the safety of anyone flying in an aircraft.”

“The next pilot who receives a distress call from a tower may doubt the genuineness of the emergency, which puts lives at risk,” he said.

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