New York (AP) US prosecutors have charged four Belarusian government officials 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 in Manhattan federal court were announced by federal prosecutors on Thursday.
US Attorney Damian Williams said in a release that the defendants corrupted standards followed by countries around the world to keep passenger airplanes safe. He said the indictment provides a prompt and public explanation of what actually happened to Flight 4978.
In August, President Joe Biden levied sanctions against Belarus. At the time, the White House noted the forced landing of a European airliner travelling through Belarus’ airspace in order to arrest a prominent opposition journalist aboard. The sanctions marked the one-year anniversary of Alexander Lukashenko’s election as president in an election that the US and international community have said was fraught with irregularities.
The arrested journalist and activist, Raman Pratasevich, ran a popular messaging app that helped organize mass demonstrations against Lukashenko. The 26-year-old Pratasevich left Belarus in 2019 and faced charges there of inciting riots. Ryanair said Belarusian flight controllers told the pilots that 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. 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. (AP) .
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