Four government officials in Belarus were charged Thursday with forcing a commercial flight to land in the country so they could arrest a dissident journalist, according to federal officials.
The suspects, including the director and deputy director of the country’s air navigation authority, forced a Ryanair flight bound for Lithuania to land in Belarus by reporting a bomb threat, federal prosecutors in New York charged.
The navigation director, Leonid Mikalaevich Churo, and another defendant whose name is not known, allegedly crafted the bomb threat specifically to draw the May 2021 flight from Athens into Belarusian airspace.
Once the flight entered their airspace, an air traffic controller in the country conveyed the false threat to the pilots, who declared an emergency and landed in Minsk, the feds charged.
When the flight reached the tarmac, officials from the country’s security forces loaded passengers onto airport buses and took journalist and activist Raman Pratasevich into custody.
Churo and his cronies then tried to cover up the action by creating false incident reports that purported to show an actual bomb threat on the flight, according to prosecutors.
Churo also appeared at a press conference the day after the flight diversion and claimed they had done everything properly in dealing with the plane.
The four defendants, who remain at large, are all charged with conspiring to commit aircraft piracy, which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.
In a statement, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York praised the investigative work done to account for what happened to 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,” Damian Williams said.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has drawn the country into authoritarianism and built a close relationship with Vladimir Putin in recent years.
The country has emerged as a key player in Russia’s potential invasion of Ukraine. Putin has stationed troops in the country for “joint military drills,” but could launch an invasion of Ukraine through Belarus.