Four Belarusian government officials have been charged in the United States with aircraft piracy for diverting a Ryanair flight last May to arrest a dissident Belarusian journalist who was on board, U.S. prosecutors said on Thursday.
The charges announced by the U.S. Department of Justice escalate the global uproar over the May 23, 2021 forced landing in Minsk of the Ryanair flight and subsequent detention of the journalist Roman Protasevich and his Russian girlfriend.
Belarus has already faced a wave of sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, from the United States, the European Union, Britain and Canada over the diverted flight, which authorities said was targeted by a false bomb threat.
The Belarus embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Ryanair flight 4978 had taken off from Athens, Greece and was scheduled to land in Vilnius, Lithuania, where prosecutors said Protasevich, a fierce critic of Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, was living in exile.
The pilots agreed to divert to Minsk after a Belarus air traffic controller declared “code red,” indicating a credible threat requiring an immediate landing.
According to the prosecutors, passengers were ordered onto airport buses and detained at the terminal, where Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega were led away.
The U.S. Department of Justice said the defendants include Leonid Mikalaevich Churo and Oleg Kazyuchits, respectively the director general and deputy director general of Belarus’ state air navigation authority; and Belarus state security officers Andrey Anatolievich Lnu and Fnu Lnu.
All remain at large. They were charged in a one-count indictment alleging conspiracy to commit air piracy, which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison and mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years in prison.
U.S. Attorney Damian Williams in a statement said the defendants undermined global efforts to keep the skies safe “to further the improper purpose of repressing dissent and free speech.”
After being detained in Minsk, Protasevich and Sapega were placed under house arrest. Protasevich has been charged with extremism, and Sapega with inciting social hatred.
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