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Jan. 21, 2022, 7:52 a.m. EST

U.S. charges four Belarusian officials with aircraft piracy in Ryanair flight grounding over purported bomb threat

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Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — U.S. prosecutors charged four Belarusian government officials on Thursday with aircraft piracy for diverting a Ryanair flight last year to arrest an opposition journalist, using a ruse that there was a bomb threat.

The charges, announced by federal prosecutors in New York, recounted how a regularly scheduled passenger plane traveling between Athens, Greece, and Vilnius, Lithuania, on May 23 was diverted to the Belarusian capital Minsk by air-traffic-control authorities there.

“Since the dawn of powered flight, countries around the world have cooperated to keep passenger airplanes safe. The defendants shattered those standards by diverting an airplane to further the improper purpose of repressing dissent and free speech,” U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said in a news release announcing the charges.

Ryanair /zigman2/quotes/204098489/composite RYAAY +2.03% /zigman2/quotes/205429530/delayed IE:RYA +0.42% /zigman2/quotes/231924929/delayed UK:0RYA +1.57% 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.

The journalist and activist who was arrested, Raman Pratasevich, ran a popular messaging app that helped organize mass demonstrations against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka.

The 26-year-old Pratasevich left Belarus in 2019 and faced charges there of inciting riots.

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

From the archives (May 2021): Biden calls Belarus’s forced diversion of Ryanair flight an ‘outrageous incident’

Also (May 2021): NATO restricts Belarusian officials’ headquarters access over Ryanair incident

A widespread belief that the 2020 vote was stolen triggered mass protests in Belarus that led to increased repressions by Lukashenka’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.

See (August 2020): Here’s why the Belarus protests and the re-election of ‘Europe’s last dictator’ matter

The latest: It appears a path is being paved in Belarus to keep autocrat Lukashenka in power till 2035

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; Oleg Kazyuchits, deputy director general of Belaeronavigatsia; and two Belarusian state security agents whose full identities weren’t known to prosecutors.

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 evening.

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

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

From the archives (November 2021): San Francisco Bay Area man facing Jan. 6 riot charges seeks asylum in Belarus

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