US Charges Belarusian Officials With Aircraft Piracy

United States authorities charged on Thursday four senior Belarusian government officials with aircraft piracy for diverting a RyanAir airplane mid-flight last year to arrest a leading opposition activist. 

The US Department of Justice said the officials had conspired in May to use a fake bomb threat to divert Ryanair flight FR4978, with over 100 passengers including dissident journalist Roman Protasevich, his partner, and four Americans.

“We allege the defendants carried out an elaborate scheme to fake a bomb scare which forced an airplane to make an emergency landing in their country so they could arrest a dissident journalist,” FBI Assistant Director Michael J. Driscoll said.

Leonid Mikalaevich Churo, Director-General of the Belarusian State Air Navigation Authority, and three others were indicted on one count of conspiracy to commit aircraft piracy, for calling in a fake bomb threat to Minsk air traffic control and then covering up the move by directing air traffic controllers to falsify incident reports about the diversion of the passenger airplane. 

The defendants would face a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years in prison and a maximum penalty of life in prison if found guilty of the aircraft piracy charges.

“The defendants are based in Belarus and remain at large,” the US Department of Justice said in a statement.

The diversion that led to the arrest of leading Belarusian opposition activist Roman Protasevich happened when Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko had been fending off opposition protests since claiming victory after a disputed election widely condemned by the international community.

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