Thursday, January 20, 2022

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. 

U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said: “Since the dawn of powered flight, countries around the world have cooperated to keep passenger airplanes safe.  The defendants shattered those standards by diverting an airplane to further the improper purpose of repressing dissent and free speech.  Thanks to the extraordinary investigative work of a joint team of FBI counterterrorism and counterintelligence investigators, today’s indictment provides a prompt and public explanation of what actually happened to the Flight.  We are committed to holding accountable these central participants in a shocking conspiracy to commit aircraft piracy that not only violated international norms and U.S. criminal law, but also potentially endangered the lives of four U.S. citizens and scores of other innocent passengers on board.”          

FBI Assistant Director Michael J. Driscoll said:  “We allege the defendants carried out an elaborate scheme to fake a bomb scare which forced an airplane to make an emergency landing in their country so they could arrest a dissident journalist. During the course of our investigation, the FBI identified a detailed operation that subjected passengers from many countries, including the U.S., to the realities of terroristic threats. 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. The next pilot who gets a distress call from a tower may doubt the authenticity of the emergency -- which puts lives at risk. The FBI and our foreign partners will continue to hold perpetrators responsible for actions which directly threaten the lives of our US citizens and jeopardize the stability of our national security.”

According to the indictment filed today in Manhattan federal court:[1]

Overview of the Plot

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.

The Defendants

LEONID MIKALAEVICH CHURO, OLEG KAZYUCHITS, ANDREY ANATOLIEVICH LNU, and FNU LNU, the defendants, are Belarusian government officials who were critical participants in this conspiracy.  At all times relevant to the indictment, CHURO was the Director General of Belaeronavigatsia, the Belarusian state air navigation authority.  CHURO personally communicated the false bomb threat to staff at the Minsk air traffic control center before the Flight even took off from Athens, and directed the Minsk air traffic control center to instruct the Flight to divert to Minsk in response to the purported threat.  KAZYUCHITS was the Deputy Director General of Belaeronavigatsia, and his role in the conspiracy included directing Belarusian air traffic authorities to falsify incident reports regarding the diversion of the Flight in order to conceal the fabrication of the bomb threat and to omit the role of Belarusian security services in directing the diversion.  ANDREY ANATOLIEVICH LNU and FNU LNU were officers of the Belarusian state security services.  FNU LNU participated with CHURO in conveying the false bomb threat to the Minsk air traffic control tower, personally directed the specific radio communications from the Minsk tower to coerce the Flight to divert to Minsk, and relayed contemporaneous updates on the diversion of the Flight and the progress of the plot to ANDREY ANATOLIEVICH LNU, who was FNU LNU’s superior in the Belarusian state security services.     

The Diversion of the Flight

On the day the flight was diverted, May 23, 2021, at approximately 6:45 UTC, CHURO and FNU LNU arrived at an operations room of the Minsk area air traffic control center with responsibility for Belarusian airspace.  CHURO and FNU LNU conveyed the purported bomb threat to the controllers on duty, even though the Flight had not yet departed Athens.  CHURO and FNU LNU specifically crafted the threat to coerce the pilots of the Flight to avoid continuing to their final destination of Vilnius, by claiming that the purported bomb would explode if the Flight landed there.  In addition, CHURO and FNU LNU took the telling steps of directing that the Flight be diverted specifically to Minsk, and even though the Flight was still in the adjacent airspace of Ukraine, prohibiting the Minsk air traffic control center from making any notification to Ukrainian authorities of the purported bomb threat.  This helped to ensure that the Flight would enter Belarusian airspace, and the plot to obtain and exercise control over the Flight could be executed.  FNU LNU remained in the operations room at the Minsk air traffic control center from the time that he and CHURO conveyed the purported bomb threat and directed that the Flight divert to Minsk, until shortly before the Flight landed in Minsk after being diverted, in order to ensure that the diversion plot was successfully executed.

Once the Flight reached Belarusian airspace, FNU LNU instructed the senior air traffic controller who was responsible for communicating with the Flight to inform the pilots of the purported bomb threat, describe that the threat had been sent by email, and make specific statements to ensure the threat seemed credible and to coerce the Flight to divert to Minsk.  For example, FNU LNU directed that the air traffic controller should falsely inform the pilots that the threat to the aircraft was a level “red”—the most specific and credible category of threat.  FNU LNU provided updates on the execution of the plot in real time to his superior in the Belarusian security services, ANDREY ANTOLIEVICH LNU, at one point expressing concern that the pilots might be stalling for time and the Flight might soon leave Belarusian airspace, which would jeopardize the success of their diversion scheme.  In response to the false information conveyed as part of the defendants’ plot, the pilots of the Flight ultimately declared an emergency and diverted to Minsk National Airport, in accordance with the directives from CHURO and FNU LNU. 

Once the Flight landed in Minsk, FNU LNU left the air traffic control operations room and went to the airport tarmac.  The Flight was met by Belarusian security services personnel, including individuals dressed in camouflage military-style uniforms, some of whom were wearing ski masks and carrying visible firearms.  FNU LNU remained on the tarmac supervising the security forces and monitoring the screening of the passengers as they disembarked.  Belarusian security services personnel then instructed the passengers to board one of several airport passenger buses. 

Belarusian authorities boarded one of the buses and asked Individual-1 to come forward and identify himself, demonstrating that Belarusian authorities were aware that Individual-1 was on board the Flight.  Individual-1 was escorted off the bus, where uniformed Belarusian officers separately searched him again on the airport tarmac.  Belarusian officers then escorted Individual-1 back onto the bus and traveled with Individual-1 and the rest of the passengers to the airport terminal.  Once the bus arrived at the terminal, the Flight’s passengers were detained in an area of the terminal secured by Belarusian security services.  Additional Belarusian security officers met Individual-1 and the officers accompanying him, escorted Individual-1 away from the remaining passengers, and detained Individual-1.  One group of passengers from the Flight, including multiple U.S. nationals and Individual-2, was detained in a narrow hallway for approximately three hours at the airport.  During that time, Belarusian authorities also escorted Individual-2 away from the other passengers and detained Individual-2.  The Flight was ultimately allowed to depart from Minsk and continue to its original destination of Vilnius later that evening.  No bomb was ever on the Flight.

The Cover-Up

Soon after the diversion of the Flight, Belarusian government officials began to cover up what had happened.  On or about May 24, 2021, the day after the Flight was diverted, CHURO appeared at a press conference in Belarus with other Belarusian officials to address the Flight’s diversion.  During the press conference, CHURO stated falsely that the Belarusian authorities had “done everything according to their technology and their job responsibilities” in handling the Flight.  In reality, CHURO knew that he and his co-conspirators had contrived the false bomb threat and had directed the Flight to divert to Minsk so that Belarusian security services could arrest Individual-1 and Individual-2.  To further conceal the defendants’ plot, KAZYUCHITS directed Belarusian air traffic authorities to create false incident reports, including by doctoring the reports to misrepresent that the bomb threat was received at approximately the same time that the Flight entered Belarusian airspace and omit the fact that FNU LNU of the Belarusian security services was present in the operations room and directed activity during the Flight’s diversion. 

CHURO, KAZYUCHITS, ANDREY ANATOLIEVICH LNU, and FNU LNU, all of Belarus, are charged with conspiring to commit aircraft piracy, which carries a maximum penalty of life in prison, and a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years in prison.  The maximum potential sentences in this case are prescribed by Congress and are provided here for informational purposes only, as any sentencing of the defendants will be determined by a judge.

The defendants remain at large.  The United States looks forward to working with our foreign partners to bring them to justice.

Mr. Williams, Mr. Olsen, and Mr. Polite praised the outstanding efforts of a joint investigative team from the FBI’s New York Field Office, Counterintelligence Division and the New York Joint Terrorism Task Force, which principally consists of special agents from the FBI and detectives from the NYPD.  They also thanked the FBI Legal Attach√© Offices in Riga, Latvia; Warsaw, Poland; Athens, Greece; Kiev, Ukraine; and London, England; the National Transportation Safety Board; the Counterterrorism Section of the Department of Justice’s National Security Division; the Office of International Affairs and the Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section of the Department of Justice’s Criminal Division; Poland’s Internal Security Agency and the Mazowieckie Regional Prosecutor’s Office; and Lithuanian authorities for their assistance with this investigation.

This prosecution is being handled by the Office’s National Security and International Narcotics Unit.  Assistant U.S. Attorneys David W. Denton, Jr. and Elinor L. Tarlow are in charge of the prosecution, with assistance from Trial Attorneys Jennifer Burke of the Counterterrorism Section and Jamie Perry and Christian Levesque of the Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section.

The charges contained in the indictment are merely accusations, and the defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.   

[1] As the introductory phrase signifies, the entirety of the text of the indictment and the description of the indictment set forth below constitute only allegations, and every fact described should be treated as an allegation.

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