© Reuters. PHOTOGRAPHY: Ryanair plane carrying Belarusian opposition blogger and activist Roman Protasevich and diverting him to Belarus, where he was detained by authorities, landed at Vilnius Airport in Vilnius, Lithuania, on May 23, 2021. REUTERS / Andrius Sytas
Authors Jonathan Landday and Jonathan Stempel
NEW YORK (Reuters) – Four Belarusian government officials have been charged in the United States with aircraft piracy for diverting a Ryanair flight last May to arrest a Belarusian dissident journalist who was on a plane, U.S. prosecutors said on Thursday.
The allegations released by the US Department of Justice are escalating global confusion over the forced landing of Ryanair’s flight to Minsk on May 23, 2021 and the subsequent detention of journalist Roman Protasevich and his Russian girlfriend.
Belarus has already faced a wave of sanctions, including a travel ban and a freeze on assets, from the United States, the European Union, Britain and Canada over a diverted flight, which authorities said was the target of a false bomb threat.
The Belarusian embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Ryanair flight 4978 took off from Athens, Greece and was scheduled to land in Vilnius, Lithuania, where prosecutors said Protasevich, a fierce critic of https://www.reuters.com/article/belarus-politics-sapega/belarus-charges- russian- student-it-uhited-after-grounding-plane-idUSL8N2ST4HX of Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, lived in exile.
The pilots agreed to divert to Minsk https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/belarus-withheld-information-ryanair-diversion-probe-un-says-2022-01-19 after the Belarusian air traffic controller said a “red code,” indicating a credible threat that requires an emergency landing.
According to prosecutors, the passengers were deployed on airport buses and detained at the terminal, where Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega were taken away.
The US Department of Justice said the defendants included Leonid Mikalaevich Churo and Oleg Kazyuchits, the director general and deputy director general of Belarus’ state air navigation body; and Belarusian state security officers Andrey Anatolievich Lnu and Fnu Lnu.
Everyone stays free. They are accused in one indictment alleging conspiracy for air piracy, which carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment and a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years in prison.
U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said in a statement that defendants were undermining global efforts to keep the sky safe “to achieve an inappropriate purpose of combating dissent and freedom of speech.”
After being detained in Minsk, Protasevich and Sapega were placed under house arrest. Protasevich is accused of extremism, and Sapega of inciting social hatred.
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