“Belarusian Government Officials Charged With Aircraft Piracy for Diverting … Flight … to Arrest Dissident Journalist”

I quote the DoJ press release; you can also read the Indictment here (starting at p. 5); the last name Lnu, of course, is a old Slavic root, doubtless cognate with “лён,” meaning linen or flax.

Belarusian officials are charged with aircraft piracy in diverting Ryanair flight 4978. They will be arrested a dissident journalist in May 2021.

In order to arrest dissidents in Belarus, senior officials from Belarus conspired to use false bomb threat to divert passengers on unlicensed flight carrying American citizens.

Today’s indictment by a Federal Grand Jury in New York charges four Belarusian officials of conspiring to commit plane 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.

U.S. Assistant Damian Williams of the Southern District of New York said, “Since powered flight began, countries all over the globe have collaborated to keep passenger aircraft safe.” They violated those standards, diverting an plane to support the illegal purpose of repressing freedom and dissent. Today’s indictment is a result of the exceptional investigative work of an FBI team of counterterrorism and counterintelligence agents. It provides a quick and open explanation about what happened to Flight. These central players in the conspiracy to hijack an aircraft were held accountable. This not only violated U.S. penal law and international norms, it also could have endangered the lives four U.S. citizens.

According to Assistant Director Michael J. Driscoll, the FBI’s New York Field Office, “We allege that the defendants orchestrated an elaborate plan to create a fake bomb scare” to force an aircraft to land in their country to arrest a journalist. “The FBI discovered that a sophisticated operation was carried out by the FBI, which exposed passengers, from all over the world, to the reality of terroristic threats. It’s a serious violation of U.S. Law and a grave danger for everyone who is flying. The next pilot who gets a distress call from a tower may doubt the authenticity of the emergency – which puts lives at risk. FBI, our partners abroad will continue holding perpetrators accountable for any actions that directly threaten lives and compromise the stability of national security.

View of the Plot

On its scheduled passenger route between Athens and Vilnius in Lithuania on May 23, 2021 the Flight was diverted to Minsk by the air traffic controllers to avoid a threat of an aircraft bomb. In fact, there was no bomb aboard the aircraft. Belarusian authorities created the threat to exert control over Flight and for it to deviate from the course towards Vilnius. Instead, the Flight landed 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). In coordination with the top officials from the Belarusian air navigation authority, the Belarusian security service officers executed the Belarusian government’s plot to divert Flight.

The Defendants

All the defendants are all Belarusian officials who were critical in this plot. They include Oleg Kazyuchits and Leonid Mikalaevich Churo. Churo served as the director general of Belaeronavigatsia. This is the Belarusian government’s state air navigation agency. According to the indictment, Churo allegedly personally communicated the bomb threat to Minsk’s air traffic control centre staff before the Flight took off from Athens. He also directed the center to direct the Flight to divert to Minsk as a response to the threat.

Kazyuchits, the Belaeronavigatsia Deputy Director General, was involved in the conspiracy. He directed the Belarusian Air Traffic Authorities to falsify the incident reports concerning the Flight to cover the fabrication of the bomb threat.

Fnu Lnu (andrey anatolievich Lnu) were officials of the Belarusian government security services. Fnu Lnu and Churo were involved in transmitting the false bomb threat at the Minsk Air Traffic Control Tower. Fnu Lnu personally directed specific radio communications to Minsk to force the Flight to depart to Minsk. Andrey Anatolievich Lnu who was Fnu Lnu’s superior in Belarusian state Security Services, received updates contemporaneously on the Flight’s diversion.

Diversion of the Flight

Fnu and Churo Lnu, responsible for Belarusian airspace, arrived at Minsk’s operations room at 6:45 UTC. Fnu Luu and Churo sent the bomb threat to the on-duty controllers even though the Flight hadn’t yet left Athens. Fnu Luu and Churo explicitly crafted this threat to force the Flight’s pilots not to continue on to Vilnius.

Fnu Lnu and Churo also directed that the Flight be diverted to Minsk. This was despite the fact that the Flight was in Ukraine’s adjacent airspace. It prevented the Minsk Air Traffic Control Center from notifying the Ukrainian authorities about the purported bomb threat. The Flight was able to enter Belarusian Airspace and thus the plan to gain and exert control of the Flight’s flight could be carried out. Fnu Lnu was present in Minsk’s operations room, where he and Churo relayed the bomb threat. He directed the Flight to divert to Minsk until the Flight arrived in Minsk shortly after the diverted flight. This ensured that the plot to divert the Flight to Minsk was successful.

Fnu Lnu directed the flight’s senior controller to notify the Flight of the bomb threat. He also instructed him to describe the email threat to the Flight and give specific statements in order to convince the Flight that it was credible. 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 updated his superior at the Belarusian security service, Andry Annolievich Lnu with real-time updates about the plot. At one point, he expressed concern that pilots were stalling and that the Flight could soon depart Belarusian airspace. This would compromise the viability of their diversion plan. The Flight pilots declared an emergency in response to false information. They diverted to Minsk National Airport according to Churo’s and Fnu Luu’s directives.

Fnu Lnu, upon landing in Minsk, left the Air Traffic Control Operations Room and made his way to the Airport tarmac. Belarusian security personnel met the Flight, many of them wearing camouflage military uniforms. Some were also carrying visible guns and ski masks. Fnu Lnu watched over the security force and monitored the passengers’ disembarkation. The security personnel from Belarus instructed passengers to take one of the airport passenger buses.

Belarusian officials boarded one the buses, asking Individual-1 to identify himself. This proved that Belarusian authorities knew that Individual-1 was aboard the Flight. Individual-1 was then escorted from the bus. Uniformed Belarusian officers searched him on the airport runway. Individual-1 was then transferred to the bus by Belarusian officials who accompanied the other passengers and escorted him back on board. The Flight’s passengers were taken into custody in a section of the terminal that was secured by Belarusian security. Individual-1 was detained by additional security officers from Belarus. The officers who accompanied him escorted Individual-1 to safety. For approximately three hours, a group of flight passengers including several U.S. citizens and Individual-2 were detained at the airport’s narrow entrance. Individual-2 was also taken away by the Belarusian authorities and held. The Flight was eventually allowed to depart Minsk, and continued to Vilnius in the late evening. There was no bomb on board the Flight.

The Cover-Up

The Belarusian government began covering up what happened soon after the Flight was diverted. Churo, along with other Belarusian officials, appeared in a Belarusian press conference on May 24, 2021 to talk about the Flight’s divert. Churo falsely stated that the Belarusian authorities “did everything according to technology and their job duties” when handling the Flight. Churo and his conspirators knew they had concocted the fake bomb threat. They had ordered the Flight to depart for Minsk in order to allow the Belarusian security service to arrest Individual-1, and Individual 2. Kazyuchits ordered Belarusian authorities to make false incident reports. These reports included the misrepresentation that the Bomb Threat was received approximately at the same moment that the Flight entered Belarusian aerospace. They also omitted the fact that Fnu Lnu from the Belarusian security service was in the Operations Room and directed activities during Flight’s divert.

All of Belarus are accused of conspiring to perpetrate aircraft piracy. This offense carries a maximum sentence of 20 years, and a maximum penalty of life. Any sentence will be determined by a federal district court judge after taking into account the U.S. Sentencencing Guidelines and other factors.

The accused remain in hiding. We look forward to working together with foreign partners in bringing them to justice.

This case was jointly investigated by the FBI’s New York Field Office, Counterintelligence Division Foreign Influence Task Force and the New York Joint Terrorism Task Force, which principally consists of special agents from the FBI and detectives from the NYPD; as well as the FBI Legal Attaché Offices in Riga, Latvia; Warsaw, Poland; Athens, Greece; Kiev, Ukraine; and London; the National Transportation Safety Board; the Justice Department’s National Security Division Counterterrorism Section and Criminal Division’s Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section, and the Office of International Affairs. The Polish Internal Security Agency, the Mazowieckie Regional Prosecutor’s Office and Lithuanian authorities were invaluable in this investigation.

Assistant U.S. The case is being prosecuted by Elinor Tarlow and David W. Denton Jr., both of New York’s Southern District. Trial Attorney Jennifer Burke, Jamie Perry and Christian Levesque, of the Criminal Division’s Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section are also involved.

Indictments are merely allegations. All defendants, however, are presumed innocent until proved guilty beyond any reasonable doubt in court.