The U.S. on Thursday charged four Belarusian government officials with aircraft piracy over the diversion of a commercial airplane last May to arrest an opposition journalist.
The charges, announced by federal prosecutors in New York, recounted how the Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius on May 23 last year was forced to land because of a “bomb threat” in Minsk by Belarusian traffic control authorities.
Ryanair said Belarusian flight controllers warned the pilots there was a bomb threat against their aircraft and ordered it to land in Minsk. The Belarusian military sent a MiG-29 fighter jet in an attempt to encourage the pilot to comply with the orders.
The plane remained for seven hours on the tarmac, during which Roman Protasevich, the 26-year-old Belarusian political opposition activist and journalist who was on the plane, was arrested with his partner Sofia Sapega.
“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.
FBI Assistant Director Michael J. Driscoll said this fake threat would endanger flights, as “the next pilot who gets a distress call from a tower may doubt the authenticity of the emergency.”
Protasevich ran a messaging app that helped organize mass demonstrations against Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko. Lukashenko faced a wave of protests against his authoritarian regime and claims of a landslide election win in 2020.