Belarusian officials accused of air piracy over forced landing of jet that led to dissident journalist’s arrest: US prosecutor

A photo taken on May 23, 2021 shows the Ryanair plane intercepted and diverted to Minsk the same day.

The Justice Department charged four senior Belarusian officials with air piracy on Thursday.
The indictment stems from a May 2021 incident in which a Ryanair flight was diverted to Minsk and a journalist was arrested.
Prosecutors said the bomb threat that prompted the diversion was a fake created by officials.

The US charged four Belarusian government officials with air piracy over the forced landing of a Ryanair jet last May, the Justice Department announced on Thursday. 

Four senior Belarusian officials were charged with “conspiracy to commit aircraft piracy for engineering the diversion of Ryanair Flight 4978,” which had four US nationals and over 100 other individuals on board. 

The Ryanair flight was traveling to Vilnius, Lithuania, from Athens, Greece, when it was told to land in Minsk, Belarus, because of an alleged bomb threat in May 2021.

When the flight landed, Belarusian authorities boarded the plane and arrested dissident journalist Roman Protasevich — a vocal critic of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko — who was on board.

US prosecutors allege the bomb threat was fake and orchestrated by Belarusian officials seeking to seize Protasevich in the country’s capital of Minsk. In response to the bogus threat, Belarus’ autocratic president, Alexsander Lukashenko, sent a fighter jet to intercept the commercial flight, leading to the arrest of Protasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega.

Protasevich’s arrest, which sparked international outrage, was followed by an appearance on Belarusian state TV, where he confessed to crimes against the country and praised his former foe, Lukashenko. Protasevich family, Belarusian opposition leaders, and members of the international community decried the video, which raised concerns of torture and coercion.

In November 2021, Protasevich and Sapega were released from jail and transferred to house arrest, where they still face charges of participating in mass anti-government demonstrations that swept the country following a highly-disputed presidential election in 2020. 

Thursday’s indictment names four senior individuals, including the country’s director-general of state air navigation authority, his deputy, and two officers involved in security services. All four defendants remain at large in Belarus, the US attorney’s office said. 

“We are committed to holding accountable these central participants in a shocking conspiracy to commit aircraft piracy that not only violated international norms and US criminal law, but also potentially endangered the lives of four US citizens and scores of other innocent passengers on board,” US Attorney Damian Williams said in a statement. 

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