US charges 4 Belarusian government officials with conspiracy to commit aircraft piracy

Mindaugas Kulbis / Associated Press

Four Belarusian government officials have been charged with conspiracy to commit aircraft piracy after a plane traveling from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, was ordered last May to be diverted so that a Belarusian journalist could be arrested, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York announced Thursday.

The four officials — Leonid Mikalaevich Churo, Oleg Kazyuchits, Andrey Anatolievich Lnu and Fnu Lnu — were charged with one count of conspiracy to commit aircraft piracy. The U.S. Attorney’s Office said they are based in Belarus but remain at large. 

According to the indictment filed Thursday in Manhattan federal court, a Ryanair Flight on May 23, 2021 — which was carrying four Americans in addition to over 100 others — was ordered to be diverted to Minsk, Belarus. 

“The Flight was diverted by air traffic control authorities in Belarus in response to a purported threat of a bomb on board the aircraft,” the indictment reads. “There was, in fact, no bomb on board the aircraft. Belarusian government authorities fabricated the threat as a means to exercise control over the Flight and force it to divert from its course toward the original destination of Vilnius, and instead land in Minsk.”

The indictment noted that the purpose of the flight being diverted was to arrest a Belarusian journalist and political activist who had been living in Lithuania in exile and was critical of the Belarusian government. Authorities also wanted to arrest his girlfriend. 

The indictment noted that Belarusian officials alleged the journalist was stirring up “mass unrest” and had been wanted by the government. 

“The Belarusian government conspiracy to divert the Flight was executed by, among others, officers of the Belarusian state security services working in coordination with senior officials of the Belarusian state air navigation authority,” the indictment said. 

U.S. officials slammed the Belarusian officials for taking part in the alleged scheme to redirect the flight.

“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,” U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said in a statement. 

The New York Times reported last year that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko had ordered that the Ryanair plane be accompanied by a MiG-29 fighter jet to intercept the plane from its original Lithuanian destination. 

Tags aircraft piracy Belarus Lithuania New York Ryanair U.S. Attorney's Office

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