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US accuses Belarus of air piracy in journalist arrest

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US accuses Belarus of air piracy in journalist arrest

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US prosecutors on Thursday charged four Belarusian government officials with hijacking planes for hijacking a Ryanair flight last year to arrest an opposition journalist, using a ruse that there had been a bomb threat .

The charges, announced by federal prosecutors in New York, recounted how a scheduled passenger plane traveling between Athens, Greece, and Vilnius, Lithuania, on May 23 was diverted to Minsk, Belarus, by screening authorities air traffic there.

“Since the dawn of powered flight, countries around the world have cooperated to ensure the safety of passenger aircraft. The defendants broke those standards by hijacking a plane for the illegitimate purpose of suppressing dissent and free speech” , U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said in a press release announcing the charges.

Ryanair said Belarusian flight controllers told the pilots there was a bomb threat against the airliner and ordered it to land in Minsk. The Belarusian military scrambled a MiG-29 fighter jet in an apparent attempt to encourage the crew to comply with orders from flight controllers.

The journalist and activist who was arrested, Raman Pratasevich, ran a popular messaging app that helped organize mass protests against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Pratasevich, 26, left Belarus in 2019 and was charged there with inciting riots.

In August, US President Joe Biden imposed new sanctions on Belarus on the first anniversary of Lukashenko’s election to a sixth term as leader of the Eastern European nation – a vote that the United States and the international community have called it irregular.

The widespread belief that the 2020 vote was stolen sparked mass protests in Belarus that led to an increased crackdown by Lukashenko’s government against protesters, dissidents and independent media. More than 35,000 people were arrested and thousands were beaten and imprisoned. The protests lasted for months and only died down when winter set in.

Those charged in court documents on Thursday were identified as Leonid Mikalaevich Churo, director general of Belaeronavigatsia Republican Unitary Air Navigation Services Enterprise, the Belarusian state air navigation authority; Oleg Kazyuchits, Deputy General Director of Belaeronavigatsia; and two Belarusian state security agents whose full identities were not known to prosecutors.

US prosecutors described the defendants as fugitives and said they were charged with conspiracy to commit aircraft hijacking, which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years in prison. Messages seeking comment were sent to the Belarusian Embassy in Washington and the country’s United Nations Mission in New York; their phones rang unanswered on Thursday evening.

US officials say they have jurisdiction over the case because US citizens were on board the flight.

After last year’s episode, European Union swiftly banned Belarusian airlines from using airspace and airports in 27-nation bloc, EU-based carriers urged to avoid overflying Belarus and imposed sanctions on some Belarusian officials. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the plane incident amounted to a “hijacking”. Lithuania has told all incoming and outgoing flights to avoid neighboring Belarus, while the Ukrainian leader has decided to ban Ukrainian flights through the neighbor’s airspace.

But Belarus’ key ally, Russia, offered its support, saying Belarus had acted in accordance with international bomb threat procedures and saying the West had reacted recklessly. Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted Lukashenko for talks days after the incident and nodded in sympathy as Lukashenko fumed against EU sanctions, saying the bloc was trying to destabilize his country.

US accuses Belarus of air piracy in journalist arrest

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