NEW YORK — US prosecutors charged four Belarusian government officials on Thursday with aircraft piracy for diverting a Ryanair flight last year to arrest an opposition journalist, using a ruse that there was a bomb threat by the Hamas terror group.
The charges, announced by federal prosecutors in New York, recounted how a regularly-scheduled passenger plane traveling between Athens, Greece, and Vilnius, Lithuania, on May 23 was diverted to Minsk, Belarus by air traffic control authorities there.
“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 said 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 it 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 flight controllers’ orders.
Belarus transport officials later claimed the country had received a bomb threat claiming to be from Hamas, as Israel and the group had been fighting in the Gaza Strip.
Artem Sikorsky, the head of the aviation department at the transport and communications ministry, had read out a letter to journalists that said: “We, the soldiers of Hamas, demand that Israel cease fire in the Gaza Strip. We demand that the European Union renounces its support for Israel in this war… A bomb is planted on this flight. If you do not fulfill our demands, the bomb will explode over Vilnius on May 23.”
The claim seemed dubious in light of the ceasefire between Israel and the terror organization, which had taken effect two days earlier. A Hamas spokesman denied the group made the threat.
The journalist and activist who was arrested, Raman Pratasevich, ran a popular messaging app that helped organize mass demonstrations against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. The 26-year-old Pratasevich left Belarus in 2019 and faced charges there of inciting riots.
In August, US President Joe Biden levied new sanctions against Belarus on the one-year anniversary of Lukashenko’s election to a sixth term leading the Eastern European nation — a vote the US and the international community said was fraught with irregularities.
The widespread belief that the 2020 vote was stolen triggered mass protests in Belarus that led to increased repressions by Lukashenko’s government on protesters, dissidents and independent media. More than 35,000 people were arrested and thousands were beaten and jailed. The protests lasted for months, petering out only when winter set in.
Those charged in court papers Thursday 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.
US prosecutors described the defendants as fugitives and said they were facing charges of conspiring to commit aircraft piracy, which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years in prison. Messages seeking comment were sent to the Belarusian embassy in Washington and the country’s UN mission in New York; their phones rang unanswered Thursday evening.
US officials say they have jurisdiction in the case because American citizens were aboard the flight.
After the episode last year, the European Union swiftly banned Belarusian airlines from using airspace and airports in the 27-nation bloc, urged EU-based carriers to avoid flying over Belarus and imposed sanctions on some Belarusian officials. EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the plane incident amounted to a “hijacking.” Lithuania told all incoming and outgoing flights to avoid neighboring Belarus, while Ukraine’s leader moved to ban Ukrainian flights via the neighbor’s airspace.
But Belarus’s key ally Russia offered support, arguing that Belarus acted in line with international procedures for bomb threats and saying the West reacted rashly. Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomed Lukashenko for talks days after the incident and nodded in sympathy as Lukashenko fulminated about the EU sanctions, saying the bloc was trying to destabilize his country.