The justice of the United States announced, Thursday, January 20, the indictment of four Belarusian officials, accused of having diverted a commercial flight in 2021 to arrest opposition journalist Roman Protassevich, who was on board.
According to a press release from the federal prosecutor of Manhattan (New York), they are charged with a “conspiracy to commit an act of piracy to divert Ryanair flight 4978” of May 23, 2021, which linked Athens to Vilnius, to Minsk airport, “in response to an alleged bomb threat on board the aircraft”.
Supported by the FBI and the New York police, the American justice accuses, in a joint press release, “Belarusian government officials Leonid Mikalaevich Churo, Oleg Kazyuchits”, and two others, with incomplete or unknown identities, from“having participated centrally in the conspiracy”.
MM. Churo and Kazyuchits are Director and Deputy Director of Belarusian Civil Aviation, respectively. The other two are officers of the Belarusian State Security Service.
” On the run “
The four men reside in Belarus and are believed to be ” on the run “ by American justice. Manhattan federal prosecutor Damian Williams denounces a “violation of international rules and American criminal law, but also the endangerment of four Americans and other innocent passengers”, referring to the people who were on board the aircraft.
On May 23, 2021, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko caused an international outcry by sending a fighter jet to intercept Ryanair flight FR4978. Claiming the presence of a bomb on board, Belarusian air traffic control had forced the aircraft to land in Minsk, in order to arrest the dissident journalist on the ground, Roman Protassevitch, and his companion, Sofia Sapega, who were on board.
In their statement, federal justice and the FBI accuse the four Belarusian officials of having developed this “Fake Bomb Threat Project”. For its deputy director Michael Driscoll, “the FBI and [ses] foreign partners will continue to hold accountable those whose acts directly threaten the lives of our nationals and who jeopardize the stability of our national security”.
Context of international tension
In June, just a month after the plane was diverted, Western countries coordinated to put pressure on President Lukashenko with individual sanctions and, a first for theEuropean Union (EU), economic sanctions. The EU, the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada had together decided to punish dozens of personalities and companies linked to power in Minsk.
These first indictments, Thursday, by the American justice were made in a context of extreme international tension between Moscow, support of Belarus, and Washington, about Ukraine.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned again on Thursday that Russia, which has massed thousands of troops on the Ukrainian border, was taking the risk of rekindling the specter of the Cold War, and has again threatened with reprisals in the event of an incursion. While Moscow denies any plan to invade Ukraine, the Kremlin insists on written guarantees for its security, including the promise that Kiev will not join NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.