Belarusian Government Officials Charged With Aircraft Piracy For Diverting Ryanair Flight 4978 To Arrest Dissident Journalist In May 2021
Senior Belarusian Officials Conspired to Use a False Bomb Threat to Unlawfully Divert a Passenger Flight Carrying American Citizens in Order to Arrest Belarusian Dissident
Damian Williams, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Assistant Attorney General for National Security Matthew G. Olsen, Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite Jr. of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, Assistant Director-in-Charge Michael J. Driscoll of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) New York Office, and Commissioner Keechant Sewell of the New York City Police Department (“NYPD”), announced the filing of a one-count indictment charging LEONID MIKALAEVICH CHURO, the Director General of Belaeronavigatsia Republican Unitary Air Navigation Services Enterprise (“Belaeronavigatsia”), the Belarusian state air navigation authority; OLEG KAZYUCHITS, the Deputy Director General of Belaeronavigatsia; and two officers of the Belarusian state security services, ANDREY ANATOLIEVICH LNU and FNU LNU, with conspiracy to commit aircraft piracy for engineering the diversion of Ryanair Flight 4978 (the “Flight”)—which was carrying four U.S. nationals and more than 100 other passengers on board—while it was in flight over Belarus on May 23, 2021, for the purpose of arresting a dissident Belarusian journalist who was on board the Flight. The case is assigned to U.S. District Judge Paul A. Engelmayer. The defendants are based in Belarus and remain at large.
While on its regularly-scheduled passenger route between Athens, Greece, and Vilnius, Lithuania, on May 23, 2021, the Flight was diverted to Minsk, Belarus by air traffic control authorities in Belarus in response to a purported threat of a bomb on board the aircraft. There was, in fact, no bomb on board the aircraft. Belarusian government authorities fabricated the threat as a means to exercise control over the Flight and force it to divert from its course toward the original destination of Vilnius, and instead land in Minsk. The purpose of the Belarusian government’s plot diverting the Flight to Minsk was so that Belarusian security services could arrest a Belarusian journalist and political activist (“Individual-1”)—who was critical of the Belarusian government, living in exile in Lithuania, and wanted by the Belarusian government on allegations of fomenting “mass unrest”—as well as Individual-1’s girlfriend (“Individual-2”). The Belarusian government conspiracy to divert the Flight was executed by, among others, officers of the Belarusian state security services working in coordination with senior officials of the Belarusian state air navigation authority.
Thanks to the outstanding investigative work of the FBI’s joint team of counterterrorism and counterintelligence investigators, today’s indictment provides a quick and public explanation of what really happened to the flight. We seek to bring to justice these key players in a shocking conspiracy to commit piracy on an aircraft that not only violated international norms and U.S. criminal law, but also potentially endangered the lives of four U.S. citizens and dozens of other innocent passengers on board.
CHURO personally relayed the false bomb threat to the Minsk air traffic control center before the flight left Athens and instructed the Minsk air traffic control center to divert the flight to Minsk in response to the alleged threat.
ANDREI ANATOLYEVICH KGB1 and FULL NAME KGB2 were employees of the Belarusian state security services. FULL NAME KGB2 participated with CHURO in transmitting a false bomb threat to the Minsk air traffic control tower, personally directed specific radio communications from the Minsk tower to force the flight to divert to Minsk, and transmitted current information about the flight diversion and the progress of the plot to ANDREY ANATOLYEVICH KGB1, who was the head KGB officer1 in the Belarusian state security services.
At this point, the stage of bringing Lukashenka and those close to him to international responsibility can be considered open. Moreover, a specific group responsible for the case of terrorism worked. [International jurisdiction in the case of state terrorism is waiting in the wings]