Belarus: US charges four government officials with piracy over Ryanair plane diversion

US prosecutors have charged four Belarusian government officials with aircraft piracy for diverting a Ryanair flight last year, allegedly claiming that there was a bomb threat in order to arrest an opposition journalist.

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

“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,” US attorney Damian Williams claimed in a news release announcing the charges.

Ryanair said Belarusian flight controllers told the pilots there was a bomb threat against the jetliner and ordered them 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 orders of flight controllers.

When the plane landed, journalist and activist Raman Pratasevich was arrested.

In August, US president Joe Biden levied sanctions against Belarus on the one-year anniversary of Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko’s election, in a vote the US and international community said was fraught with irregularities.

Pratasevich ran a popular messaging app that helped organise mass demonstrations against Lukashenko. The 26-year-old left Belarus in 2019 and faced charges there of inciting riots.

Lukashenko was awarded a sixth term leading the eastern European nation last year. Widespread belief that the vote was stolen triggered mass protests in Belarus that led to increased repressions by Lukashenko’s regime on protesters, dissidents and independent media. More than 35,000 people were arrested and thousands were beaten and jailed.

Those charged in court papers 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.

The defendants are based in Belarus and has not been arrested, US authorities said.

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