Jan 21, 2022 - Politics & Policy

U.S. charges 4 Belarus officials with air piracy in journalist's arrest

A photo taken on May 23, 2021 shows a Boeing 737-8AS Ryanair passenger plane from Athens, Greece, that was intercepted and diverted to Minsk
A Boeing 737-8AS Ryanair passenger plane from Athens, Greece, that was diverted to Minsk, Belarus, in May. Photo: Petras Malukas/AFP via Getty Images

The Justice Department on Thursday charged four Belarusian government officials with conspiracy to commit aircraft piracy as part of an operation to arrest a dissident Belarusian journalist.

Why it matters: Prosecutors say the officials fabricated a bomb threat aboard a Ryanair flight carrying the journalist Raman Pratasevich last May, forcing it to land in Minsk, Belarus instead.

  • Pratasevich, an activist who has criticized the Belarusian government, is one of hundreds of political prisoners held by the Lukashenko regime.

What they're saying: "Since the dawn of powered flight, countries around the world have cooperated to keep passenger airplanes safe," U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said in a statement. "The defendants shattered those standards by diverting an airplane to further the improper purpose of repressing dissent and free speech."

  • "We are committed to holding accountable these central participants in a shocking conspiracy to commit aircraft piracy that not only violated international norms and U.S. criminal law, but also potentially endangered the lives of four U.S. citizens and scores of other innocent passengers on board."   
  • The defendants include Leonid Mikalaevich Churo and Oleg Kazyuchits, who run the Belarusian state air navigation authority, as well as two state security agents.

The big picture: Pratasevich faces allegations of fomenting mass unrest in protests against Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko’s election to a sixth term, which the U.S. and the international community have condemned as rigged.

  • The 26-year-old is still awaiting trial in an unknown location six months after his arrest, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Worth noting: RSF has referred his case to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention in a bid to formally recognize his detention as arbitrary under international law.

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