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The Ryanair passenger plane after the emergency landing in Minsk. May 23, 2021.

UN aviation agency releases fact-finding report on Ryanair incident in Belarus

Source: Meduza
The Ryanair passenger plane after the emergency landing in Minsk. May 23, 2021.
The Ryanair passenger plane after the emergency landing in Minsk. May 23, 2021.
Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

The UN’s civil aviation agency has released its fact-finding report on the May 2021 diversion of a Ryanair passenger plane to Belarus. The Athens to Vilnius flight was forced to make an emergency landing in Minsk after Belarusian dispatchers warned of an alleged bomb threat. Once the plane touched down, the Belarusian authorities promptly detained two of its passengers: Belarusian opposition journalist Roman Protasevich and Russian national Sofia Sapega, his girlfriend. The arrests prompted an international scandal that resulted in European countries banning airlines from traveling through Belarusian airspace. According to the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which obtained a copy of the fact-finding report, the investigation documents inconsistencies in the Belarusian authorities’ version of events, as well as their failure to comply with standard aviation procedures.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) released its fact-finding report on the Ryanair incident to all 193 member states on Monday, January 17, according to a statement published on the UN agency’s website. “Council representatives will formally consider any further actions to be taken by ICAO as a result of the report’s findings during a meeting presently scheduled for 31 January,” the statement said. 

On May 23, 2021, a Ryanair flight traveling from Athens to Vilnius was forced to make an emergency landing after Belarusian dispatchers warned of an alleged bomb threat on board the plane (this later proved to be false). The Belarusian authorities sent up a MiG-29 military fighter jet to accompany the plane to Minsk.

After the plane touched down in Belarus, two of its passengers were arrested: Belarusian opposition journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend, Russian citizen Sofia Sapega. The governments of a number of European countries deemed the incident a hijacking intended to let the Belarusian authorities detain Protasevich, and subsequently banned their carriers from flying through Belarusian airspace. 

The Belarusian authorities brought criminal charges against Roman Protasevich, accusing him of organizing mass riots, violating public order, and inciting social hatred amid the mass anti-Lukashenko protests that rocked Belarus after the 2020 presidential election. The Belarusian authorities also brought criminal charges against Sofia Sapega, accusing her of running an opposition Telegram channel called “Black Book of Belarus,” which leaked the personal data of Belarusian security officers. Reportedly, both Protasevich and Sapega made plea bargains with investigators. According to Sapega’s stepfather, she has also appealed to Alexander Lukashenko for clemency. 

Belarusian air traffic controller Oleg Golegov, who instructed the Ryanair crew to make the emergency landing in Minsk, fled Belarus with his family in July 2021. He later claimed that the operation to divert the plane was orchestrated by the Belarusian KGB. 

The ICAO did not make the report public, saying only that it contains “operational details” and “technical analyses of the various measures and decisions undertaken.”

Having obtained a copy of the report, the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta writes that the ICAO’s Fact Finding Investigation Team uncovered inconsistencies in the Belarusian authorities’ testimony about when they received the anonymous email — allegedly containing a bomb threat — that prompted the diversion of the plane.

The Minsk Airport received the email in question at 12:56 p.m. local time — after the plane was already preparing for the emergency landing. However, Minsk provided the ICAO with a screenshot of the email with a different time stamp, 12:25 p.m. (local time). The ICAO underscores that it’s impossible to check the email’s real metadata from a screenshot, Novaya Gazeta writes. 

According to the ICAO, emails containing identical threats were sent to a total of six different airports — Vilnius, Minsk, Sofia, Bucharest, Kyiv, and Athens. The anonymous threats never reached the Ukrainian and Greek airports. Lithuania’s Vilnius Airport didn’t receive the message until the next day (Monday, May 24, 2021), as the emails weren’t checked over the weekend. At the time of the diversion, however, the Belarusian dispatcher told the Ryanair crew that emails had been sent to several airports around 12:30 p.m. that day. How he could have known this remains unclear.

The ICAO’s report also documents several instances where Minsk failed to comply with standard aviation procedures, Novaya Gazeta writes. For example, in the event of a bomb threat, safety rules oblige passengers and crew to evacuate the aircraft. However, according to testimony from the Ryanair crew, after landing in Belarus, the Minsk Airport’s ground personnel ordered a crew member to remain on board while the plane was searched. The Belarusian intelligence services also refrained from declaring an “anti-terrorist operation regime” at the airport, despite the alleged bomb threat, the report points out.

In an interview with Dozhd television, Franak Viačorka, a senior advisor to exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya), confirmed that the ICAO report only gives a technical chronology of the events, but does not name those responsible for the incident or contain any additional recommendations. According to Viačorka, though much of the information published in the report was previously classified, its findings don’t really change anything. 

“We hope that there will be a more detailed discussion on January 31, we hope that the investigation will continue. We also hope that other bodies that can make political decisions, as well as lawyers from international courts, will take an interest in this report, in order to start an investigation against the Lukashenko regime. It’s precisely this report that can form the basis of such investigative actions,” Viačorka emphasized

Artem Sikorsky, the head of the Belarusian Transport Ministry’s Aviation Department, said that contrary to early accusations leveled against Belarus, the report notes that the ICAO didn’t find any evidence that the Ryanair plane was intercepted, forced to land, or to change trajectory by the MiG-29 military fighter jet that the authorities sent to accompany the plane during the emergency landing.

“It’s important to note that the recording of the negotiations in the cockpit while making the decision to proceed to Minsk was not saved due to the fact that the crew didn’t turn off the recorders during the stopover in Minsk,” Sikorsky asserted, as quoted by state-owned Belarusian broadcaster ONT.

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