The Volokh Conspiracy

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

Arrr! Or, as we say in the Cyrillosphere, Аррр!

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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 Government Officials Charged with Aircraft Piracy for Diverting Ryanair Flight 4978 to Arrest Dissident Journalist in May 2021

Senior Belarusian Officials Conspired to Use False Bomb Threat to Unlawfully Divert Passenger Flight Carrying American Citizens in Order to Arrest Belarusian Dissident

A federal grand jury in New York returned an indictment today 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

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.

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 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 looks forward to working with our foreign partners to bring 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. Poland's Internal Security Agency and the Mazowieckie Regional Prosecutor's Office; and Lithuanian authorities provided valuable assistance with this investigation.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys David W. Denton Jr. and Elinor L. Tarlow for the Southern District of New York are prosecuting the case, with assistance from Trial Attorneys Jennifer Burke of the National Security Division's Counterterrorism Section, and Jamie Perry and Christian Levesque of the Criminal Division's Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section.

An indictment is merely an allegation, and all defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.

NEXT: Praying on the 50-Yard Line

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  1. I was surprised that the US was claiming jurisdiction over this one, but I assume it's based on those four US passengers? I guess this is another example of extraterritorial jurisdiction for me but not for thee...

    1. Maybe they'll arrest them by forcibly diverting their next flights to the US!

      1. The next time they see a flight manifest with the name Fnu or Lnu, perhaps.

      2. Historically the US has had more subtle solutions for getting their hands on people. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extraterritorial_abduction#United_States

        1. We Americans are nothing if not subtle.

        2. This indictment is like the charges by Italy against a Bush administration CIA officer. No matter what the merits of the charges the indictment is political theater.

  2. Oh Russians....

    I learned something new today. Apparently the Democrats in the Senate still like the filibuster. They decided to filibuster Senator Cruz's bill that would put sanctions on Russia around the Nord 2 pipeline....

    This was...in January of 2022.

    The 55-44 vote is the culmination of Cruz's months-long push to force Democrats into an uncomfortable vote on Nord Stream 2, which the Ukrainian government has said is "no less an existential threat to our security" than the tens of thousands of Russian troops massing on its border. The bill needed 60 votes to pass.

    Nice. Democrats use the filibuster to support Russia's pipeline's while simultaneously trying to get rid of the filibuster and claiming Russia supports Trump....

    1. Maybe they did it just because Ted Cruz is an insufferable asshole (and, like John Eastman, Prof. Volokh's kind of politician).

      Or maybe they did it because of the way Ted Cruz treats his wife . . . perhaps even at the request of someone who cares about Heidi Cruz?

      1. So....Democrats in Congress fillibustered a bill supported by Ted Cruz, which true bipartisan agreement, to sanction Russia because...

        Of how Ted Cruz treats his wife? Really....

        1. The reprehensible, unmanly way Ted Cruz treats his wife (and his children, who must be grievously confused about how a father is supposed to act when someone attacks their mommy) is a relatively small part of the reason Ted Cruz is roundly regarded as an insufferable jerk and friendless misfit.

          Some of the Conspirators know Ted Cruz. When he dies alone in a hospital room, wondering why his girls won't answer calls, do you think he will be smart enough to recognize why?

          (Bills with 'true bipartisan agreement' do not become filibuster victims. The Cruz bill was not bipartisan. Let's see whether the Menendez bill qualifies.)

    2. You're going to have to whinge louder, Art. I can't hear you.

    3. Wait, so to not by hypocrites, the Dems just need to unilaterally disarm?

      This is a very silly demand. Good luck getting literally anyone to care about this.

      1. Sarcastro...

        This was this month. When Democrats had a majority in the Senate. And they still filibustered.

        For all this talk about "majoritarian rule" and how the filibuster is "racist"...they're still using it. EVEN WHEN THEY HAVE THE MAJORITY. Which is absurd.

        1. It is not hypocrisy to exist within the rules as they are, and also want to change them.

          Especially since the issues with the filibuster are regarding particular policies that aren't getting passed; I don't see a broad-spectrum objection.

          It's the same logic as liberals should voluntarily pay higher taxes. Or conservatives should stop taking medicare. If you thought about it for a moment, you'd see how dumb you were being.

          But you don't tend to critically examine anything that owns the libs.

          1. If the filibuster is racist, they perpetuated racism. Their treatment of that as, basically, morally just short of putting babies in blenders, is hypocritical. If it's that bad, they have a moral responsibility to not further that evil.

            Or maybe they're just one-note screechers and they don't have a good reason to oppose the filibuster.

            1. This is like some sort of cargo cult comment. Like you've seen the structures of an argument, but don't really know how to make one work.

              1. Whereas you, as usual, don't even bother trying.

                1. It does seem like he has stopped trying in the last year or so; He used to make an effort to put up arguments previously. Now he's just phoning it in.

          2. 5 years ago, more than 20 current Democratic Senators signed a letter saying how important the filibuster is, and how it shouldn't be gotten rid of. Now, the vast majority have suddenly flipped their position.

            Hypocrisy.

            The Filibuster is a Jim crow law, and using it is racist claim Democrats. Simultaneously, they use it so to avoid putting sanctions on Russia.

            Hypocrisy.

            1. It is probably not worth trying to convince someone who openly admits Democrats are not going to be consistent on the question: "the issues with the filibuster are regarding particular policies that aren't getting passed; I don't see a broad-spectrum objection".

            2. You don't seem to understand the Democratic position, nor the conditions that it acknowledges.

              Opinions can change when conditions change. The GOP's use of the filibuster was bad during Obama, but nowadays it's not even based on content anymore.

              If I ever wanted to see the difference between a regurgitated talking point, and something a poster really thinks, you're providing a great example of how to tell the difference.

              1. So be clear about that position. With the exception of two actually-principled Senators, the Democratic position is very simple: Republican use of the filibuster is bad, and Democratic use of the filibuster is good.

                1. Republicans tend to use the filibuster for bigoted reasons.

                  Because conservative tend to be race-targeting vote suppressors, superstitious gay-bashers, half-educated Muslim-haters, obsolete misogynists, chanting anti-Semites, xenophobic hayseeds, and other low-quality forms of humanity.

              2. The Democratic position on the filibuster is pretty simple. Anything that gets in the way of the Democrats prevailing is bad, and anything that enables Democrats to prevail is good.

                "The GOP's use of the filibuster was bad during Obama, but nowadays it's not even based on content anymore."

                Your argument, if I can call it that, amounts to, "I disagree with your substantive criticisms of this legislation, so they must be pretext." You don't have to agree with Republican arguments against a bill for them to HAVE arguments against it, Sarcastro.

  3. I wonder if our government would quietly tolerate it when other countries bring these kinds of criminal actions against U.S borders of the United States that adversely affect citizens of those other countries.

    1. Er, piracy has always been a crime of universal jurisdiction. That is, any country can prosecute it anywhere. This has been extended air piracy, see 49 U.S. Code § 46502. So when you are talking about "these kinds of criminal actions" you are talking about air piracy or perhaps by extension, sea piracy as well. Doubtless air piracy or sea piracy within our borders would be prosecuted in the US. If we did not do so, as a signatory to the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Seizure of Aircraft it would be duty bound to arrest and extradite the offenders.

      What type of piracy are you suggesting US officials could be prosecuted for by other countries? What "type of crime" are you thinking of?

      1. "Er, piracy has always been a crime of universal jurisdiction. That is, any country can prosecute it anywhere"

        That's not quite true. Traditional maritime piracy has to be on the high seas (international waters). If piracy happens in the territorial waters, it's considered armed robbery, and only the nation who's territorial waters its in can prosecute it.

        Likewise, with air piracy, if it was inside national borders, there may not be jurisdiction. For US jurisdiction to apply, there would need to be a US-based aircraft...or a US national onboard the plane...or a US offender.

        In this case, there were US nationals on the plane, so US jurisdiction can apply. That makes sense. If countries or people could hijack international aircraft with US nationals on board, the US wouldn't just throw up its and say "Whoops, can't do anything".

        1. "If piracy happens in the territorial waters, it's considered armed robbery, and only the nation who's territorial waters its in can prosecute it."

          You're just making stuff up again. Those assertions are utterly untrue.

            1. The Hague Hijacking Convention applies to any international flight, and even any flight within borders if the plane is registered in a different country. (With a few possible exemptions that don't apply here.)

              There is a little bit of ambiguity as to whether this conduct was "on board" a flight, but I think it is most reasonable construed to apply in any case where someone transmits a threat to a plane in flight.

              1. This conduct would be piracy.

              2. Don't rush to a conclusion here. If a foreign flight strays into the DC Flight Restricted Zone and interceptors are scrambled and force it down, is that also hijacking?

  4. As terrible as Belarus's acts were, it's really hard to see how the U.S. has any legitimate jurisdiction here. Ireland might have a claim; it's a Ryanair plane. Greece or Lithuania — the origin and destination of the flight — might have a claim. But the U.S.?

    1. See my above comment in response to Seamus and 49 U.S. Code § 46502.

      1. No, you misunderstand my question. I can read an indictment; I know the statute the U.S. is citing. I'm asking how that's legitimate.

        1) Piracy was a crime of universal jurisdiction because it happened outside of every country's territorial jurisdiction. This did not.
        2) This was a government, not pirates.

        1. In regards to point 1

          Here's the deal David.
          Let's take a real case example. Pan Am Flight 73.
          Is actual your view that the US had "no" jurisdiction in the criminal behavior of any of the participants? Do you see how that might be problematic?

          1. 1) That the U.S. might want to prosecute something does not seem to me sufficient justification for it to do so.
            2) But, Pan Am 73 was an American plane, en route to the USA. That's to me sufficiently different than an Irish plane, en route to Lithuania from Greece, to present a different scenario.

  5. Of course, the pirates have every right to defend themseleves in a court of law -- although that didn't work out well for Capt. Teach in 1718.

  6. The law incorporates by reference the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Seizure of Aircraft). When the law was enacted that treaty did not apply to threats made by people not on the aircraft. A 2010 protocol removed that restriction. I assume the government will say the scope of the statute expands along with the treaty. According to the link from Wikipedia the U.S. has signed but not ratified the protocol. So the relevant acts have been criminalized by a diplomat's signature alone.

    The protocol also bans taking control by technological means. If drones are aircraft (not sure about that) it is air piracy to jam the control signal.

    1. "According to the link from Wikipedia the U.S. has signed but not ratified the protocol. So the relevant acts have been criminalized by a diplomat's signature alone."

      The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties states that a mere signature obligates a nation. The Executive branch finds this persuasive.

      The Senate, OTOH, notes that we never ratified that convention, and finds, (At least in this one instance!) the Constitution more persuasive.

      1. Since Woodrow Wilson, at least, the need for ratification has been well known in the international community.

        Quoting article 46:

        1. A State may not invoke the fact that its consent to be bound by a treaty has been expressed in violation of a provision of its internal law regarding competence to conclude treaties as invalidating its consent unless that violation was manifest and concerned a rule of its internal law of fundamental importance.

        2. A violation is manifest if it would be objectively evident to any State conducting itself in the matter in accordance with normal practice and in good faith.

  7. In 1984 and 1986, during a wave of terrorist attacks, Congress passed laws making air piracy and attacks on Americans abroad federal crimes. Ronald Reagan added teeth to these laws by signing a secret covert-action directive in 1986 that authorized the CIA to kidnap, anywhere abroad, foreigners wanted for terrorism.

    So, the US not only claims jurisdiction over kidnappers, it claims the right to kidnap kidnappers. Presumably, the US would deny the right of other countries to kidnap the kidnap kidnappers.

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