US prosecutors announce that the four Belarusian officials who diverted Ryanair plane to detain dissenting journalist aboard were indicted for piracy. 

The officials include Leonid Churo (head of Belarus’s aviation navigation service), Oleg Kazyuchits (his deputy), and two other state security agents from Belarus who weren’t named in the charges.

The four are accused of phoning in a fake bomb threat to Ryanair Flight 4978 as it crossed Belarusian airspace in May last year, and then dispatching a fighter jet to escort the Boeing 737 to Minsk airport.

Upon landing, passengers were hauled off the jet and two of them – dissident journalist Roman Protasevich, and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega – were arrested.

Ryanair Flight 4978 is searched by dog handlers at Minsk airport after it was diverted using a fake bomb threat so a journalist on board could be arrested

Dog handlers search Ryanair Flight #4978 at Minsk airport. The flight was diverted with a fake bomb threat in order to arrest a journalist.

Protasevich was a key witness in the reporting of protests against Alexander Lukasenko’s dictatorial regime one year prior. He was then taken to detention, where it is thought he was tortured and later appeared on confessional video.

Both men remain in Belarus. Mr Protasevich, who is being held under house arrest in connection with inciting violence charges for which he could face up to fifteen years imprisonment, remains in Belarus.

Russian-born Miss Sapega faces up to six years behind bars for similar offenses. Last month, it was announced that Sapega would be released from house arrest.

The piracy charges, announced Friday by federal prosecutors in New York, recounted how the flight was diverted as it travelled between Greece – where Mr Protasevich had been attending a conference – to his home-in-exile in Lithuania. 

U.S. Attorney Damian Williams declared that since the advent of powered flight, nations around the world have collaborated to protect passenger aircrafts.

“The defendants broke those standards by diverting an aircraft to promote the illegal purpose of repressing freedom speech and dissent.”

Dissident journalist Roman Protasevich

Protasevich's girlfriend Sofia Sapega

Roman Protasevich, a dissident journalist (left), and Sofia Sapega, his girlfriend (right), were both arrested after their Ryanair flight had to land at Minsk on May 23, 2013.

Ryanair claimed that Belarusian flight control personnel told the pilots of a bomb threat and directed the plane to land at Minsk. 

A MiG-29 fighter aircraft was scrambled by the Belarusian military in apparent attempts to persuade the crew members to obey the flight controllers. 

The U.S. President Joe Biden issued new sanctions to Belarus for the one year anniversary of Lukashenko winning a sixth term in the Eastern European nation’s presidency. It was an irregular vote, the U.S. said and the international community.

Mass protests in Belarus were triggered by widespread beliefs that the 2020 vote had been stolen. The government of Lukashenko increased its repressions against dissidents and other independent media. 

Over 35,000 were taken into custody and many others were beat and imprisoned. The demonstrations went on for many months but ended with winter.

Thursday’s charges against Leonid Mikalaevich Churo were filed in court papers. He is the director general Belaeronavigatsia Republican Unitary Air Navigation Services Enterprise. This agency regulates air navigation services for Belarusian states.

Oleg Kazyuchits was also charged as deputy director general for Belaeronavigatsia. Two Belarusian security agents, whose identities are unknown, were also indicted.

Ryanair flight FR4978 was flying from Athens in Greece to Vilnius in Lithuania when it was escorted by a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet to Belarus amid fake reports of an IED on board

Ryanair flight FR4978, which was travelling from Athens (Greece) to Vilnius (Lituania), was escorted to Belarus by a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter aircraft. The plane was escorted to Belarus amid false claims of an IED.

The U.S. prosecution described the defendants in a fugitive role and stated that they are facing conspiracy to commit aviation piracy charges. This carries a minimum of 20 years imprisonment. 

A number of messages were left for comments to the U.N. mission and Washington’s embassy.

U.S. officials claim that they have jurisdiction because American citizens are on board the flight.

Following the incident last year, EU officials swiftly expelled Belarusian airlines and banned them from flying in 27-nation bloc airspace. They also advised EU-based carriers that they should not fly over Belarus. 

Ursula von der Leyen, President of the EU Commission said that the incident on board a plane was a case of a “hijacking.” 

Lithuania advised all outgoing and incoming flights to avoid Belarusian neighboring, while the leader of Ukraine moved to prohibit Ukrainian flights through its airspace.

Russia, Belarus’s key ally, offered its support. It argued that Belarus followed international bomb threat procedures and said the West had reacted too quickly. 

Vladimir Putin, Russian President welcomed Lukasenko to his talks only days following the incident.