The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Belarusian officials charged in fake bomb threat orchestrated for dissident arrest

A Ryanair plane that was carrying Belarusian opposition journalist Roman Protasevich from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, and was diverted to Minsk, Belarus, after a bomb threat, lands at the international airport outside Vilnius on May 23.
A Ryanair plane that was carrying Belarusian opposition journalist Roman Protasevich from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, and was diverted to Minsk, Belarus, after a bomb threat, lands at the international airport outside Vilnius on May 23. (Mindaugas Kulbis/AP)
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correction

An earlier version of this story misidentified the names of two officials with the Belarusian security services who are charged in the criminal indictment. Their full names are not known to U.S. officials, according to the indictment. One suspect was identified only by his first name and patronymic as Andrey Anatolievich; the name of the second suspect is unknown.

NEW YORK — Federal prosecutors unsealed an indictment Thursday against several Belarusian government officials for allegedly plotting to divert a Lithuania-bound aircraft to a Minsk airport so a dissident and his girlfriend could be arrested there.

The international episode that has resulted in an air piracy case was centered on a plan by the officials to report a fake bomb threat to apprehend anti-government media personality Roman Protasevich by forcing his flight to make an emergency landing at an airport within Belarus’s jurisdiction on May 23.

Protasevich, who had been living in exile in Lithuania, was traveling from Athens to Vilnius on Ryanair Flight 4978, which carried 126 travelers.

Protasevich and his girlfriend were arrested at the airport in Minsk. At the time, Protasevich and Stepan Putilo, the founder of a media outlet he worked for, were on the country’s list of people “involved in terrorist activity,” although the country’s pursuit of Protasevich has been widely seen as an attempt to stifle criticism and free speech.

Protasevich had been a crucial source of information in 2020 protests against controversial Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power since the mid-1990s.

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By the time of the unrest, which according to human rights observers resulted in about 30,000 arrests, Protasevich was already on the government’s radar for his activism and assistance to the movement. Officials believed he was helping to alert activists to the movements of law enforcement.

In 2019, Protasevich fled to Poland, where he was granted political asylum.

The indictment unsealed Thursday charges Leonid Mikalaevich Churo and Oleg Kazyuchits with conspiracy to commit aircraft piracy. They were employed at the state air navigation authority, the agency responsible for air traffic control, and allegedly helped two other suspects — whose full names were not known, according to the indictment, but who worked for the state security services — carry out the fake threat and flight diversion operation, the charging documents say.

The two unnamed suspects are also charged with conspiracy to commit aircraft piracy.

All four defendants — who remain at large — are accused of trying to cover up what really happened, the indictment says, holding a news conference the day after the landing to address the alleged threat.

At that briefing, Churo told reporters that it was the pilot’s decision to land in Minsk even though prosecutors allege that Churo and the others worked to ensure the pilot would be directed to divert there. Documents were also allegedly doctored to help create a paper trail to support the concealment, according to prosecutors.

Justice Department officials said Thursday that the deception allegedly carried out by Belarus’s government operators endangered those aboard the flight, including four U.S. citizens.

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“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,” Assistant Director Michael J. Driscoll of the FBI’s New York Field Office said in a statement. “The next pilot who gets a distress call from a tower may doubt the authenticity of the emergency — which puts lives at risk.”

Manhattan U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said that the actions of the four violated a long-standing practice of cooperation among countries around the world that enables safe international travel.

“The defendants shattered those standards by diverting an airplane to further the improper purpose of repressing dissent and free speech,” Williams said.

It is unlikely that the four Belarusian officials will be brought to the United States to face the indictment. The United States does not have an extradition agreement with Belarus.

All four face a minimum of 20 years in prison and the possibility of a life sentence if convicted.

“The United States looks forward to working with our foreign partners to bring them to justice,” the Justice Department said in a news release announcing the case.

Earlier versions of this article gave incorrect names for some of the defendants. Two of the defendants’ names are unknown to investigators, and they are referred to in the indictment as “

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