A federal grand jury in New York returned an indictment on January 20 charging four Belarusian state officials with conspiracy to commit aircraft piracy.
According to court documents, Leonid Mikalaevich Churo, Oleg Kazyuchits, Andrey Anatolievich Lnu and Fnu Lnu, all of Belarus, allegedly engineered 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 on May 23, 2021, to arrest a dissident Belarusian journalist who was on board.
“Since the dawn of powered flight, countries around the world have cooperated to keep passenger airplanes safe,” said U.S. Attorney Damian Williams for the Southern District of New York. “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.”
“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,” said Assistant Director Michael J. Driscoll of the FBI’s New York Field Office. “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.”
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 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, all Belarusian government officials and critical participants in this conspiracy, are identified as: Leonid Mikalaevich Churo, Oleg Kazyuchits, Andrey Anatolievich Lnu and Fnu Lnu. At all times relevant to the indictment, Churo was the Director General of Belaeronavigatsia, the Belarusian state air navigation authority. As alleged, 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 control center to instruct the Flight 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 May 23, 2021, at approximately 6:45 UTC, Churo and Fnu Lnu arrived at the 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, Andry 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.
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 minimum sentence of 20 years and maximum statutory penalty of life. A federal district court judge will determine any sentence after considering the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.
The defendants remain at large, the United States will work with its foreign partners to bring them to justice.
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has also released its released its fact-finding report into the event involving the Flight. The report, which says the bomb threat was “deliberately false” was made accessible on January 17 to all 193 ICAO Member States, including the 36 States presently elected to the ICAO Council. Council representatives will now formally consider any further actions to be taken by ICAO as a result of the report’s findings during a meeting scheduled for January 31. The same meeting will also consider a complaint made by Belarus about sanctions placed on the country following the incident.
The ICAO report into the Flight is based solely on the data and information countries have made available to ICAO, and includes operational details, technical analyses of the various measures and decisions undertaken, and references where applicable to the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation and applicable international legal instruments. It has been compiled by a special Fact Finding Investigation Team composed of ICAO experts in the fields of aviation security, aircraft operations, air navigation, and international air law.
ICAO noted that Belarusian authorities didn’t provide the agency with some requested information and that the investigation team could not corroborate Belarus’ claim that a phone call had taken place between Minsk Airport and Belarusian air traffic control relaying the bomb threat. Belarus’ Department of Aviation explained its refusal to submit any related information was due to national legal protections.
In addition, ICAO investigators were not able to meet with or interview the Belarusian air traffic controller assigned to the Flight. According to the report, Belarusian authorities said he did not report for duty after his summer leave, and that they had no information on his whereabouts and no way to contact him.
* Journalist Raman Pratasevich (also known as Roman Protasevich).
See our report on the incident from May 2021