Major: US Charges Belarus With Aircraft Piracy

Major: US Charges Belarus With Aircraft Piracy

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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.

The flight path for Ryanair’s Belarus diversion

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
A Ryanair flight was forced to divert to Minsk

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…?

Bottom line

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?

Conversations (23)
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  1. iamhere Guest

    But Ryan Air is not an American carrier.

    1. Jorge Paez Guest

      This is big brother security. Way above your pay grade.

  2. Will Guest

    It’s not major, and will have no effect

  3. Darren Keast Guest

    So the US spent 8 months of taxpayer money on a case they will never be able to prosecute about a flight by a UK airline between two other countries that are most definitely not the US. Seems like a good use of resources.

    1. Jorge Paez Guest

      See above comment.

  4. Chris Guest

    FNU = First name unavailable
    LNU = Last name unavailable
    Great!

  5. vbscript2 Guest

    The bit about sentencing doesn't seem to make sense, unless that's just referring to what sentence the prosecutors would seek. There would be no actual sentencing until the defendants were actually found guilty at trial, which, of course, won't happen unless the U.S. can actually get its hands on the people involved, right?

    1. Eskimo Guest

      And here is the beauty of "due process". The US will not hold a trial in absentia.

      So correct, won't happen unless the U.S. can actually get its hands on the people involved.

      But only until the next something like the PATRIOT Act, that we waive bunch of rights and freedom in the name of counter terrorism. Then maybe, we can trail terrorists (anyone) in absentia.

  6. HkCaGu Guest

    Some of the defendants are "FNU" (first name unknown) and "LNU" (last name unknown).

  7. Ken Guest

    Technically speaking if these four go to a country where the us has extradition treaty then the local government can attest them and send them to us, though quite unlikely. Would be interesting to see what happens on the future. I am sure other European countries are now pressured do something and I am pretty sure the us will share some intelligence that they already have

    1. beth Guest

      Yep, pretty common to have these charges and then wait. There is actually a booming business at the Orlando airport in picking people up with charges that could back decades who want to got to Disneyworld and assume that no one will notice.

  8. Brendan Joseph Madden Guest

    Where was the aircraft flagged? Interesting that Ireland, Poland, Malta or the UK haven't prosecuted, considering the plane is registered in one of these.

  9. Eskimo Guest

    Someone please tell me that US DOJ has jurisdiction here because there were 4 Americans onboard?

    1. Max Guest

      US believes that it has jurisdiction wherever it wants ;)
      That's why there are more than 700+ big US military bases all around the world (with very few exceptions like Russia, that's also why Putin is currently so aggressive to prevent Russia from becoming the next 'colony' of the US).
      Heck, even in Cuba the US has a military base (Guantanamo Bay).

    2. Eskimo Guest

      Although, like you said, our glorious and mighty USA likes to flex our muscles and nose worldwide, we still have a thing called "due process" to pat ourselves in the back and say we're doing the right thing. That means we don't bully other nation without a legitimate excuse.

      Just like we invaded Cuba to keep the "commies" away. Vietnam?
      Or all those "WMD" in Iraq. Or the "terrorist" hunt in Afghanistan.
      Just...

      Although, like you said, our glorious and mighty USA likes to flex our muscles and nose worldwide, we still have a thing called "due process" to pat ourselves in the back and say we're doing the right thing. That means we don't bully other nation without a legitimate excuse.

      Just like we invaded Cuba to keep the "commies" away. Vietnam?
      Or all those "WMD" in Iraq. Or the "terrorist" hunt in Afghanistan.
      Just to name a few.

      But in all those cases, we always have reasons (excuse) to be a peacekeeper (bully) on someone else's problem.
      In this case, 4 Americans who are possibly is on vacation and doesn't even care about geopolitics?
      Maybe the CIA planted them there to counter the KGB operation, who knows?

    3. vbscript2 Guest

      The U.S. invaded Cuba? Are you referring to Bay of Pigs? You do know those were Cubans, not Americans, right? They did certainly have the support of the U.S. government, but the U.S. military did not invade. As for Gitmo, it's been there since the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898, long before there was any commie threat.

    4. Eskimo Guest

      Just like Laos. It's the locals fighting each other. ;)

      And we never funded Bin Laden to fight the Soviets.

      But who knows?

  10. Steve Diamond

    Nice to see something being done, sure those four will never be prosecuted if they stay in Belarus but that is a good deterrent from someone doing this again, if you ever leave your country you run the risk of getting arrested yourself. Tough life to always be looking over your shoulder. Not to mention if Belarus ever needs anything from the US they could bargain and give these four away to the US in some other diplomatic issue.

    1. Ethan Guest

      I'm sure the motherland will reward them with fake passports, just like China.

    2. Donna Diamond

      @Ethan - Facial Recognition is being used on many of international flights and at entry points. A fake passport can only get you so far.

  11. David Diamond

    A lot of these dictators enjoy shopping in London, so this is going to put an end to that. They'll be stuck with Russia.

    1. Max Guest

      Honestly speaking, Moscow is nowadays much more appealing and livable than Sadiq Khan's Londonistan with it's daily stabbings, acid attacks and islamic terror attacks.

    2. David Diamond

      In some ways, true. But there's good reason why empty luxury residences sit in large swaths in central London rather than Moscow.

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Steve Diamond

Nice to see something being done, sure those four will never be prosecuted if they stay in Belarus but that is a good deterrent from someone doing this again, if you ever leave your country you run the risk of getting arrested yourself. Tough life to always be looking over your shoulder. Not to mention if Belarus ever needs anything from the US they could bargain and give these four away to the US in some other diplomatic issue.

2
Darren Keast Guest

So the US spent 8 months of taxpayer money on a case they will never be able to prosecute about a flight by a UK airline between two other countries that are most definitely not the US. Seems like a good use of resources.

1
Chris Guest

FNU = First name unavailable LNU = Last name unavailable Great!

1
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