4 Belarusian officials accused of air piracy

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Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko speaks during a meeting with the Russian Tyva Republic delegation in Minsk, Belarus, Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022. (Nikolay Petrov/BelTA Pool Photo via AP)

PA

US prosecutors on Thursday charged four Belarusian government officials with hijacking planes for hijacking a Ryanair flight last year to arrest an opposition journalist, using a ruse that there had been a bomb threat .

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

“Since the dawn of powered flight, countries around the world have cooperated to ensure the safety of passenger aircraft. The defendants broke those standards by hijacking a plane for the illegitimate purpose of suppressing dissent and free speech” , U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said in a press release announcing the charges.

Ryanair said Belarusian flight controllers told the pilots there was a bomb threat against the airliner 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 orders from flight controllers.

In August, President Joe Biden imposed sanctions on Belarus on the one-year anniversary of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s election, in a vote the United States and the international community have called irregularities. .

Arrested journalist and activist Raman Pratasevich ran a popular messaging app that helped organize mass protests against Lukashenko. Pratasevich, 26, left Belarus in 2019 and was charged there with inciting riots.

Lukashenko secured a sixth term as leader of the Eastern European nation last year. The widespread belief that the vote was stolen sparked mass protests in Belarus that led to an increased crackdown by Lukashenko’s regime against protesters, dissidents and independent media. More than 35,000 people were arrested and thousands were beaten and imprisoned.

Those charged in the court documents 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 General Director of Belaeronavigatsia; and two Belarusian state security agents whose full identities were not known to prosecutors.