The U.S. Department of Justice charged on Thursday four Belarusian government officials with conspiracy to commit aircraft piracy over a plot to force the emergency landing of a Ryanair jet in May 2021.
Ryanair flight FR4978 from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania was intercepted by a MiG29 fighter jet as it flew through Belarusian airspace after authorities made a false claim that a bomb threat had been made against the aircraft.
A report from the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) is likely to confirm that the bomb threat had been faked in a deliberate ploy to get the Ryanair plane to land in Minsk where police could nab wanted journalist and activist Raman Pratasevich.
The ICAO report was sent to member states earlier this week and sources say the report found that the pilots of the Boeing 737 aircraft with 129 passengers onboard would never have landed the plane in Minsk had it not been for the insistence of the Belarusian authorities.
A federal grand jury in New York returned an indictment on Thursday against Leonid Mikalaevich Churo, Oleg Kazyuchits, Andrey Anatolievich Lnu and Fnu Lnu.
“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.
“During the course of our investigation, the FBI identified a detailed operation that subjected passengers from many countries, including the U.S., to the realities of terroristic threats. Not only is what took place a reckless violation of U.S. law, it’s extremely dangerous to the safety of everyone who flies in an airplane.”
Churo was the Director General of the Belarusian state air navigation authority and is alleged to have personally called the Minsk air traffic control center and communicated the bomb threat before the plane had even taken off.
Investigators claim that the threat made against the flight warned the pilots that the bomb would explode if they continued on to the intended destination which was actually closer than Minsk at the point that the flight was diverted.
The pilots were told that the threat made against the aircraft was graded as ‘Red’ – the highest level of threat that necessitated an immediate diversion. The accused allegedly directed the air traffic controller to make specific statements that made the threat seem real.
Soon after the plot stoked outrage from the international community, the accused allegedly tried to cover up the actions of the Belarusian government.
The accused remain at large but if found guilty, they face a minimum sentence of 20 years imprisonment. The maximum sentence is life behind bars.
In a statement, the Department of Justice commented: “The United States looks forward to working with our foreign partners to bring them to justice.”
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.