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Belarus officials charged in Ryanair flight diversion

CBS News logo CBS News 1/20/2022 Sophie Reardon

Four Belarusian officials have been charged in connection with a Ryanair flight diversion last year that led to the arrest of a dissident Belarusian journalist, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Manhattan announced Thursday. The plane was forced to land in Belarus on May 23, 2021, due to an alleged bomb threat.

The four officials — Leonid Mikalaevich Churo, the director general of Belaeronavigatsia Republican Unitary Air Navigation Services Enterprise; Oleg Kazyuchits, the deputy director general of Belaeronavigatsia; and two officers of the Belarusian state security services, Andrey Anatolievich Lnu and Fnu Lnu — are each facing one charge of conspiracy to commit aircraft piracy.

The suspects remain at large, according to the indictment from the U.S. Attorney's Office.

The Ryanair flight was carrying more than 100 passengers, including four American citizens, from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania, when it was diverted to Minsk, Belarus, due to a reported bomb threat. 

However, according to the indictment, the bomb threat was a ruse. The Belarusian government is accused of plotting to divert the flight so they could arrest the journalist, Roman Protasevic — "who was critical of the Belarusian government, living in exile in Lithuania, and wanted by the Belarusian government on allegations of fomenting 'mass unrest'" — and his girlfriend.

Security officers use a sniffer dog to check the luggage of passengers on the Ryanair plane carrying opposition figure         Roman Protasevic, which was diverted to Minsk on May 23, 2021. Western leaders decried the diversion of a plane to Belarus in order to arrest an opposition journalist as an act of piracy and terrorism. / Credit: ONLINER.BY via AP © Provided by CBS News Security officers use a sniffer dog to check the luggage of passengers on the Ryanair plane carrying opposition figure Roman Protasevic, which was diverted to Minsk on May 23, 2021. Western leaders decried the diversion of a plane to Belarus in order to arrest an opposition journalist as an act of piracy and terrorism. / Credit: ONLINER.BY via AP

The Belarusian government plot "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.

According to U.S. prosecutors, Churo told the air traffic control center in Minsk about the alleged bomb threat before the flight departed Athens, and directed them to divert the flight.

Kazyuchits allegedly instructed the air traffic authorities to "to falsify incident reports regarding the diversion of the Flight in order to conceal the fabrication of the bomb threat and to omit the role of Belarusian security services in directing the diversion."


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Fnu Lnu allegedly joined Churo in conveying the false bomb threat to air traffic control, directed radio communications from the air traffic control tower to the plane and gave Andrey Anatolievich Lnu — who was his superior — updates on the plot. 

Together, Fnu Lnu and Churo are accused of coercing the flight to land in Minsk specifically, withholding information about the alleged threat until the plane left Ukrainian airspace and entered Belarusian airspace. Fnu Lnu remained in the air traffic control tower throughout the entire plot, until the plane had landed in Minsk.

Once the plane was on the tarmac, Fnu Lnu oversaw the security operation and monitored the screening of the passengers. The passengers were then instructed to board several buses, at which point security forces entered one and asked for the journalist, Roman Protasevic, to present himself. This showed that the authorities knew the journalist was onboard the flight, the indictment alleges.

A handout photo released on May 24, 2021, by the Belarus government press office shows Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevic speaking to the camera in a prison in Minsk, Belarus. / Credit: Belarus government press office via AP © Provided by CBS News A handout photo released on May 24, 2021, by the Belarus government press office shows Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevic speaking to the camera in a prison in Minsk, Belarus. / Credit: Belarus government press office via AP

Protasevic was detained. Meanwhile, his girlfriend and several other passengers were held in the airport for more than three hours. No bomb was ever found onboard the plane, and it was eventually allowed to continue on to Lithuania.

The day after the incident, the indictment alleges, the Belarusian officials began an effort to conceal the plot. At a press conference, the indictment says Churo falsely claimed "that the Belarusian authorities had 'done everything according to their technology and their job responsibilities' in handling the Flight."

Additionally, Kazyuchits is accused of telling air traffic authorities to create false incident reports, "including by doctoring the reports to misrepresent that the bomb threat was received at approximately the same time that the Flight entered Belarusian airspace" and to leave out the fact that Fnu Lnu "was present in the operations room and directed activity during the Flight's diversion," the indictment said.

In the aftermath of the incident, world leaders condemned the Belarusian government. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that the U.S. "strongly condemns the forced diversion of a flight between two EU member states and the subsequent removal and arrest" of Roman Protasevic. Blinken said the U.S. "demands his immediate release." 

Many flights with paths over the country were canceled, and the European Union imposed sanctions.

In response to the criticism, Belarus' authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko said it was a "total lie that the plane was forced down," insisting that authorities had received a bomb threat from Switzerland and were only acting in the passengers' interest.

Each charge carries a maximum penalty of life in prison, and a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years in prison, the indictment said. But the suspects are not in custody. The U.S. Attorney's Office said the United States "looks forward to working with our foreign partners to bring them to justice."

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