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US indicts Belarus officials with aircraft piracy

January 21, 2022

The US Department of Justice alleges Belarus forced the plane to land by way of a fake bomb threat. Minsk subsequently detained dissident journalist Raman Pratasevich, who was on board at the time.

Ryanair flight
A journalist critical of Lukashenko was on board the plane when it was asked to make an emergency landing in MinskImage: dpa/picture alliance

Four Belarus officials have been charged in the United States with airplane piracy after diverting a Ryanair flight to arrest a dissident journalist, the US Department of Justice announced Thursday.

Two top officials of the air navigation authority and two security officials were accused of conspiracy to commit aircraft piracy after allegedly taking part in a fake bomb scare plot to compel the Ryanair flight to land in Minsk in May 2021, so that the Belarusian government could detain dissident journalist Raman Pratasevich and his Russian girlfriend.

The Justice Department noted all the suspects were still at large; the likelihood of them ever facing trial is probably not high. 

The US, the UK, the European Union and Canada have already hit Minsk with a stream of sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, over the diverted flight.

Ryanair flight 4978 had taken off from the Greek capital of Athens and was scheduled to land in Vilnius, Lithuania, where prosecutors said Pratasevich was living in exile. The blogger and political activist has been a fierce critic of the Alexander Lukashenko regime.

US prosecutors allege the pilots agreed to divert to the Belarusian capital after a Minsk air traffic controller declared "code red," indicating a credible threat that instigated an immediate landing. Ryanair made similar comments at the time based on its pilots' testimony. 

"Not only is what took place a reckless violation of US law, it's extremely dangerous to the safety of everyone who flies in an airplane," Michael Driscoll, Assistant Director of the FBI's New York field office, said. "The next pilot who gets a distress call from a tower may doubt the authenticity of the emergency — which puts lives at risk."

Date set for vote on constitutional reforms

Meanwhile, disputed leader Alexander Lukashenko on Thursday announced the date for a vote on constitutional reforms that he promised in the wake of protests against him and a brutal state crackdown after the 2020 election.

The vote is set to be held on February 27.

The amendments would reinstate presidential term limits — previously scrapped by Lukashenko — to five years, but they would only apply to the next elected president.

That means Lukashenko, 67 years old and in office since 1994, could theoretically run again in 2025 and then serve another 5-year term even if the reforms take effect.

The strongman claimed a sixth term after the disputed August 2020 ballot and imprisoned leading opposition figures, with his main rival Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya fleeing over the border to Lithuania, which lies immediately to the north of Belarus.

jsi/msh (Reuters, AFP)