On January 20, prosecutors from the United States charged four Belarusian officials with aircraft piracy after diverting a flight to the Belarussian capital Minsk to arrest opposition journalist Raman Pratasevich, according to Reuters.
The flight, Ryanair Flight FR4978, and its subsequent detention, which occurred on May 23, 2021, was originally scheduled to fly from Athens to Vilnius, reports the Associated Press. Instead, Belarusian flight controllers told the pilots to land in Minsk because of a bomb threat made against the plane. Leonid Mikalaevich Churo, the Director-General of Belaeronavigatsia—Belarus’ state-owned air navigation service—personally delivered the information about the bomb threat to the Minsk air traffic control, telling them to divert the plane, says Radio Free Europe.
The BBC reports that the officials did wait until the plane had entered Belarusian airspace so that they had the authority to order its landing in Minsk. The Assistant Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Michael Driscoll, said that the event set a dangerous precedent as “[t]he next pilot who gets a distress call from a tower may doubt the authenticity of the emergency – which puts lives at risk”.
Pratasevich was arrested when the plane landed. The plane and luggage on board were then checked while the passengers were made to wait in the terminal before the flight was cleared to continue to Vilnius. Pratasevich’s Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, was also taken off the flight—Reuters reports that they were moved to house arrest after their detention.
Raman Pratasevich left Belarus in 2019, according to NPR. In November 2020, he was listed as a terrorist for allegedly inciting riots by the Belarusian authorities as a result of his involvement in the leadership of Nexta, a popular messaging app, says Reuters. After the August 2020 presidential election in which President Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory, the app was instrumental in organizing mass demonstrations against him, reports Radio Free Europe. These demonstrations were based on the belief from both the Belarusian opposition and the consensus in the West that the election was illegitimate.
Damian Williams, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, stated that the grounding of the plane “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,” reports The New York Times. According to the Associated Press, U.S. officials claimed they had jurisdiction to bring suit because the flight carried U.S. citizens, and the actions of the Belarussian air traffic officials violated sections of federal law.
The U.S. alleges that the deputy director-general Oleg Kazyuchits then called for air traffic control authorities to disguise the matter by falsifying reports. Two other officers were also charged, but their full names remain unknown. The men remain at large, but the U.S. prosecutors want to bring them to face trial, the results of which range from “a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years in prison… to life in prison,” says Radio Free Europe.
The Associated Press reports that EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has equated the incident to a “hijacking”. Lithuania and Ukraine have both changed their airplanes’ flight paths to avoid Belarusian airspace. Russia, however, has stated that Belarus acted with bomb threat protocol.