Federal prosecutors in New York have charged four Belarusian officials with piracy following the diversion of Ryanair flight 4978 in May 2021.
“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,” attorney Damian Williams announced in a US Department of Justice press release.
According to Michael J. Driscoll, Assistant Director in charge of the FBI’s New York Field Office, a special investigation identified a conspiracy to fake a bomb scare and force the airplane to make an emergency landing.
Four US citizens were on board FR 4978 from Athens (ATH) to Vilnius (VNO) on May 23, 2021. While crossing Belarusian airspace, an air traffic controller informed the pilots about an apparent bomb threat and advised them to proceed to Minsk Airport (MSQ). Upon landing, dissident Belarusian journalist, Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapiega, were promptly arrested by Belarusian authorities.
Prosecutors have accused Leonid Mikalaevich Churo, the Director General of Belarusian air navigation authority Belaeronavigatsia, Oleg Kazyuchits, Deputy Director General of Belaeronavigatsia, and two unnamed Belarusian state security officers.
According to prosecutors, Churo and one of the officers instructed Belarusian air traffic controllers to fabricate the bomb threat and pressure the pilots to divert to Minsk as the flight was about to leave Belarusian air space. Kazyuchits then initiated a cover-up, directing the creation of false incident reports. The operation was allegedly supervised by the second unnamed security officer.
Prosecutors claim that the plot to divert the aircraft was initiated before the flight even took off from Athens.
“Not only is what took place a reckless violation of U.S. law, it’s extremely dangerous to the safety of everyone who flies in an airplane. The next pilot who gets a distress call from a tower may doubt the authenticity of the emergency – which puts lives at risk,” Driscoll said.
“The defendants remain at large. The United States looks forward to working with our foreign partners to bring them to justice,” concludes the US Department of Justice press release.
The accusations come after the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) concluded its investigation into the diversion of FR4978. While the ICAO report has not been publicly released, it was leaked and published by Politico. The report refrains from accusing Belarusian authorities of the hijacking but does note numerous inconsistencies in Belarus’ version of events. It also concludes that Belarusian authorities refused to share key information with investigators, and that Belarusian ATC and security services failed to comply with international procedures regarding the event.