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US charges Belarusian officials for diverting flight carrying dissident journalist

<i>Petras Malukas/AFP/Getty Images</i><br/>A photo taken on May 23
AFP via Getty Images
Petras Malukas/AFP/Getty Images
A photo taken on May 23

By Kara Scannell and Kara Fox, CNN

United States federal prosecutors charged four Belarus officials with piracy-related charges for diverting a RyanAir airplane mid-flight last year to arrest a journalist critical of the government.

Leonid Churo, the director of the state’s air navigation agency, Belaeronavigatsia Republican Unitary Air Navigation Services Enterprise, and three others were indicted on one count of conspiracy to commit aircraft piracy, for calling in a fake bomb threat to Minsk air traffic control and then covering up the move by directing air traffic controllers to falsify incident reports about the passenger airplane’s diversion.

“The defendants are based in Belarus and remain at large,” a Thursday statement from the US Department of Justice said.

The original flight route on May 23, 2021 was from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital — a path that crosses through Belarus.

According to the charges, Churo personally called in the fake bomb threat and directed Minsk air traffic control to divert the passenger plane to Minsk.

The diversion led to the arrest of leading Belarusian opposition activist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend, creating an international uproar.

The incident took place as Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko had been fending off opposition protests since claiming victory after a hotly disputed election widely condemned by the international community.

Protasevich was one of dozens of journalists and activists campaigning in exile against Lukashenko’s rule.

Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, was abruptly inaugurated into office for his sixth consecutive term in September 2020 following an election that the European Union said was not legitimate.

Amid mass protests in Belarus that followed, Lukashenko and the state security apparatus forcibly removed from the country or detained leading opposition figures.

Protasevich is the founder of the Telegram channel Nexta, which helped mobilize anti-Lukashenko protests. He was charged in 2020 with “organizing mass riots and group actions that grossly violate public order.”

Last June, Protasevich appeared on Belarusian state media, where he said he “pleaded guilty” to organizing large-scale “unsanctioned protests” following the country’s disputed elections.

Government critics feared the young dissident was being forced to address the nation under duress.

Later that month, Protasevich was moved from a detention facility to house arrest, Reuters reported.

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CNN’s Tim Lister, Olga Pavlova, Zahra Ullah and Hanna Yahrova contributed reporting.

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