In May 2021, a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius made global headlines, when it diverted to Minsk, Belarus. While a flight diversion as such is nothing unusual, what was remarkable was that it was determined that the Belarusian government was behind this, as a way of arresting an opponent of the government who was on the flight.
In a significant development, the United States is now bringing charges against Belarusian government officials, and the details of the investigation are fascinating.
United States charges Belarus with aircraft piracy
The United States Department of Justice (DOJ) has just charged four Belarusian government officials with aircraft piracy for forcing Ryanair flight 4978 to divert in order to arrest a dissident journalist. According to the DOJ’s investigation, senior Belarusian officials conspired to use a false bomb threat to unlawfully divert an international flight carrying four American citizens.
Charges are being brought against the following four people:
- Leonid Mikalaevich Churo, who was the Director General of Belaeronavigatsia, the Belarusian state air navigation authority; he personally communicated the false bomb threat to staff at the Minsk air traffic control center before the flight even took off from Athens, and directed the control center to instruct the flight to divert to Minsk because of that
- Oleg Kazyuchits, who was the Deputy Director General of Belaeronavigatsia; he directed Belarusian air traffic authorities 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
- Andrey Anatolievich Lnu and Fnu Lu, who were officers of the Belarusian state security services; they participated in conveying the false bomb threat to Minsk air traffic control tower, personally directing the specific radio communications from the Minsk tower to coerce the flight to divert
All four are charged with conspiring to commit aircraft piracy, which carries a minimum sentence of 20 years and maximum statutory penalty of life. A federal district court judge will determine any sentence after considering the US Sentencing Guidelines and other factors.
Here’s how US Attorney Damian Williams describes this:
“Since the dawn of powered flight, countries around the world have cooperated to keep passenger airplanes safe. The defendants shattered those standards by diverting an airplane to further the improper purpose of repressing dissent and free speech. Thanks to the extraordinary investigative work of a joint team of FBI counterterrorism and counterintelligence investigators, today’s indictment provides a prompt and public explanation of what actually happened to the Flight. 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.”
How did the Belarusian government plan this diversion?
According to the DOJ’s report:
- The bomb threat was fabricated by government authorities as a way of exercising control over the flight and forcing it to divert
- This plot was executed by officers of the Belarusian state security services, working in coordination with senior officials of the Belarusian state air navigation authority
- At 6:45AM UTC the morning of the flight, before the flight even departed Athens, those involved in the plot already told controllers to advise the pilots of the bomb threat once the plane entered their airspace
- Controllers were directed very specifically about how to communicate with the pilots to ensure that the threat seemed credible and to coerce the flight to divert to Minsk
- For example, controllers were told to tell pilots that the aircraft was a level “red,” the most specific and credible category of threat
- Updates on the plot were passed on to superiors in real time; at one point there was concern that the pilots might be stalling and that the flight would soon leave Belarusian airspace, but the pilots ultimately cooperated
- Once the plane was on the ground, those who were overseeing the operation in the air traffic control tower went down to the airport tarmac to meet the plane; people in military-style camouflage uniforms wearing ski masks and carrying visible firearms boarded the plane
- Passengers were put on a bus to the terminal, and security officers kept a close eye on the person they were trying to arrest; once in the terminal, he was separated from other passengers and taken into custody
- The day after the flight diverted, the same people who were involved in the plot appeared at a press conference, falsely claiming that authorities had “done everything according to their technology and their job responsibilities”
- Air traffic controllers were directed to create false incident reports, including doctoring reports to misrepresent the bomb threat that was received
What an incredible investigation!
I’m so impressed by how investigations like this are conducted. A couple of thoughts & questions:
- I know that the US has access to some great intelligence, but I can’t help but wonder how they were able to get such a detailed timeline of events, especially when the incident was in a country like Belarus? Did they somehow get some involved in the plot to cooperate, or how do investigations like this work?
- I’m hoping legal experts can chime in, but are there any practical implications to these charges? There’s no extradition treaty between the United States and Belarus, so is this all just theoretical, or…?
The United States has brought charges against four Belarusian government officials for aircraft piracy. They’re being charged in relation to a Ryanair flight that was forced to divert due to a fake bomb threat. The work they’ve done here is absolutely incredible, and it’s fascinating to learn more about just how detailed this plot was.
It’s too bad that holding those responsible for this act of aircraft piracy probably won’t be so easy.
What do you make of the findings from this investigation?