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Wednesday, May 25, 2022

US accuses Belarus of air piracy over reporter’s arrest

NEW YORK. U.S. prosecutors on Thursday charged four Belarusian government officials with air piracy charges after a Ryanair flight was diverted last year to arrest an opposition journalist using the gimmick that there was a bomb threat.

The allegations, made by federal prosecutors in New York, relate to how a passenger plane operating a scheduled flight between Athens, Greece and Vilnius, Lithuania, was diverted to Minsk, Belarus on May 23 by local air traffic authorities.

“From the very beginning of flying, countries around the world have cooperated with engines to ensure the safety of passenger aircraft. The defendants violated these standards by redirecting the plane’s flight to achieve the improper purpose of suppressing dissent and free speech,” U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said in a press release announcing the charges.

Ryanair said that Belarusian air traffic controllers informed the pilots about the threat of an explosion on the airliner and ordered it to land in Minsk. The Belarusian military took off the MiG-29 fighter, apparently trying to convince the crew to follow the orders of the controllers.

Arrested journalist and activist Roman Pratasevich used a popular messaging app that helped organize mass demonstrations against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Pratasevich, 26, left Belarus in 2019 and was charged there with inciting unrest.

Belarusian police detain journalist Roman Protasevich (center) in Minsk, Belarus, March 26, 2017. (Sergey Grits/AP Photo, File)

In August, US President Joe Biden imposed new sanctions on Belarus on the anniversary of Lukashenka’s election to a sixth term as leader of the eastern European country, a vote that the US and the international community said was flawed.

The widespread belief that the 2020 vote was stolen has sparked massive protests in Belarus that have led to increased crackdown by the Lukashenka government on protesters, dissidents and independent media. Over 35,000 people were arrested, thousands were beaten and imprisoned. The protests lasted for months and subsided only with the onset of winter.

The defendants in Thursday’s court documents were identified as Leonid Nikolayevich Churo, director general of Belaeronavigatsia, the Belarusian state air navigation agency; Oleg Kazyuchits, Deputy General Director of Belaeronavigatsia; and two Belarusian state security agents whose full names were not known to prosecutors.

US prosecutors described the defendants as fugitives and said they were charged with conspiracy to commit air piracy, which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years in prison. Messages asking for comment were sent to the Belarusian embassy in Washington and the country’s UN representation in New York; their phones rang unanswered Thursday night.

U.S. officials say they have jurisdiction in the case because there were American citizens on board.

After last year’s episode, the European Union quickly banned Belarusian airlines from using airspace and airports in the 27-country bloc, urged EU carriers to avoid flying over Belarus, and imposed sanctions on some Belarusian officials. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called the incident a “hijacking”. Lithuania has ordered all incoming and outgoing flights to avoid neighboring Belarus, and the Ukrainian leader has proposed banning Ukrainian flights through the neighbor’s airspace.

But a key ally of Belarus, Russia, offered support, arguing that Belarus was acting in accordance with international procedures regarding bomb threats and saying that the West’s response was reckless. Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomed Lukashenko into talks days after the incident and nodded sympathetically when Lukashenko spoke out harshly about EU sanctions, saying the bloc was trying to destabilize his country.

Associated Press

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