US brings charges over grounded Ryanair flight
A grand jury in the US has brought charges against four Belarusians in connection with the forced landing of a plane last year that led to an opposition activist being arrested, the US Department of Justice revealed on Thursday.
The DoJ has targeted Leonid Churo, the head of Belaeronavigatsia, the body responsible for Belarusian air traffic control, along with his deputy Oleg Kazyuchits, and two unknown officers of the state security services. They are accused of conspiracy to commit aircraft piracy, and are alleged to have engineered the diversion of Ryanair Flight 4978 to arrest a “dissident Belarusian journalist” who was on board.
On May 23, a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius was forced to make an emergency landing in Minsk, due to an alleged bomb threat. It was later discovered that there was no explosives on board. According to the Americans, the danger was fabricated by the Belarusian authorities in order to arrest passengers Roman Protasevich, an opposition activist, and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega.
Protasevich and Sapega are currently under house arrest.
“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,” said Assistant Director Michael J. Driscoll of the FBI’s New York Field Office. “The FBI and our foreign partners will continue to hold perpetrators responsible for actions which directly threaten the lives of our US citizens and jeopardize the stability of our national security.”
Earlier this week, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) concluded that the report of a bomb on board the Ryanair aircraft was deliberately false. However, it was “unable to attribute the commission of this act of unlawful interference to any individual or State.”
The ICAO’s investigation also found inconsistencies in the testimony of the Belarusian authorities.
Several countries, including the US, Canada, and the UK, have imposed sanctions against Belarus in connection with the flight grounding, including travel bans and asset freezes.