Belarus officials are charged with PIRACY over Ryanair flight hijack

Belarus officials are charged with PIRACY for hijacking a Ryanair jet so they could arrest a dissident journalist

  • Four Belarusian officials charged with piracy over hijack of Ryanair Flight 4978 
  • Plane was diverted to Minsk airport using a fake bomb threat in May last year 
  • Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich was then arrested and remains in jail
  • US says officials, including head of Belarus’ air control service, guilty of piracy

Four Belarusian officials have been charged with piracy for diverting a Ryanair jet to arrested a dissent journalist on board, US prosecutors have announced. 

Officials include the head of Belarus’s air navigation service Leonid Churo, his deputy Oleg Kazyuchits, and two other Belarusian state security agents who were not named in the charges.

The four are accused of phoning in a fake bomb threat to Ryanair Flight 4978 as it crossed Belarusian airspace in May last year, and then dispatching a fighter jet to escort the Boeing 737 to Minsk airport.

Upon landing, passengers were hauled off the jet and two of them – dissident journalist Roman Protasevich, and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega – were arrested.

Ryanair Flight 4978 is searched by dog handlers at Minsk airport after it was diverted using a fake bomb threat so a journalist on board could be arrested

Mr Protasevich, who had been central to reporting protests against dictator Alexander Lukashenko’s regime a year earlier, was then dragged off to detention where it is believed he was tortured before appearing in confessional videos.

The pair remain in Belarus, where Mr Protasevich is under house arrest on charges of inciting unrest for which he faces up to 15 years in jail.

Miss Sapega, a Russian citizen, is facing up to six years in jail on similar charges. It was reported last month that she is due to be freed from house arrest.

The piracy charges, announced Friday by federal prosecutors in New York, recounted how the flight was diverted as it travelled between Greece – where Mr Protasevich had been attending a conference – to his home-in-exile in Lithuania. 

‘Since the dawn of powered flight, countries around the world have cooperated to keep passenger airplanes safe,’ U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said.

‘The defendants shattered those standards by diverting an airplane to further the improper purpose of repressing dissent and free speech.’

Ryanair said Belarusian flight controllers told the pilots there was a bomb threat against the jetliner and ordered it to land in Minsk. 

The Belarusian military scrambled a MiG-29 fighter jet in an apparent attempt to encourage the crew to comply with the flight controllers’ orders. 

In August, U.S. President Joe Biden levied new sanctions against Belarus on the one-year anniversary of Lukashenko’s election to a sixth term leading the Eastern European nation – a vote the U.S. and international community said was fraught with irregularities.

Widespread belief that the 2020 vote was stolen triggered mass protests in Belarus that led to increased repressions by Lukashenko’s government on protesters, dissidents and independent media. 

More than 35,000 people were arrested and thousands were beaten and jailed. The protests lasted for months, petering out only when winter set in.

Those charged in court papers Thursday were identified as Leonid Mikalaevich Churo, director general of Belaeronavigatsia Republican Unitary Air Navigation Services Enterprise, the Belarusian state air navigation authority.

Also charged was Oleg Kazyuchits, deputy director general of Belaeronavigatsia; and two Belarusian state security agents whose full identities aren’t known.

Ryanair flight FR4978 was flying from Athens in Greece to Vilnius in Lithuania when it was escorted by a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet to Belarus amid fake reports of an IED on board

U.S. prosecutors described the defendants as fugitives and said they were facing charges of conspiring to commit aircraft piracy, which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years in prison. 

Messages seeking comment were sent to the Belarusian embassy in Washington and the country’s U.N. mission in New York; their phones rang unanswered Thursday.

U.S. officials say they have jurisdiction in the case because American citizens were aboard the flight.

After the episode last year, the European Union swiftly banned Belarusian airlines from using airspace and airports in the 27-nation bloc, urged EU-based carriers to avoid flying over Belarus and imposed sanctions on some Belarusian officials. 

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the plane incident amounted to a ‘hijacking.’ 

Lithuania told all incoming and outgoing flights to avoid neighboring Belarus, while Ukraine’s leader moved to ban Ukrainian flights via the neighbor’s airspace.

But Belarus’ key ally Russia offered support, arguing that Belarus acted in line with international procedures for bomb threats and saying the West reacted rashly. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomed Lukashenko for talks days after the incident and nodded in sympathy as Lukashenko fulminated about the EU sanctions, saying the bloc was trying to destabilize his country.

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