Almost eight months after the incident with the Ryanair plane, which was en route from Athens to Vilnius, the ICAO published the investigation results, where ICAO outlined all the details. This investigation got conducted for a long time. The report consideration got postponed several times due to new facts and documents. ICAO experts visited several countries in the truth search and interviewed many people. Today we will write in detail about the progress of the incident investigation and report on some conclusions from the final report of the ICAO.
The first stage: the beginning of the investigation
On May 27, 2021, at a specially convened meeting, the ICAO governing body stressed the importance of establishing the facts of what happened to Ryanair flight FR4978 and understanding whether there were violations of international air law by the ICAO member States. Also, the ICAO considered it significant to establish whether there were violations of the Convention on International Civil Aviation (Chicago Convention) and its Annexes.
Article 55 (e) of the Chicago Convention states that the ICAO Council may investigate any situation in which avoidable obstacles at the request of any Contracting State and, after such investigation, issue such reports as it deems desirable. Referring to this article, on May 27, 2021, the Council decided to investigate the landing of the aircraft and establish the facts of a forced landing on May 23, 2021. The Council asked the ICAO Secretariat to prepare an interim report to the Council, which will present the available facts and relevant legal instruments. The Council also asked all ICAO member States and other interested parties to cooperate with the investigation in the interests of ensuring flight safety and aviation safety of civil aviation. The Council offered the assistance and expertise of the ICAO in the implementation. ICAO Secretary General Fang Liu promised full support and cooperation from the Secretariat in the investigation. The Ministers of Transport of Ireland, Lithuania and Poland, representatives of Belarus, attended the meeting on May 27, 2021.
On June 16, 2021, the ICAO sent official requests to countries directly related to the landing of the Ryanair FR4978 aircraft. The ICAO announced the provision of preliminary information from Belarus and Poland. Information got also requested from Greece, Ireland, Lithuania and Switzerland. On the same day, the Council involved an aviation security team in the investigation, with additional support from experts in aircraft operation, air navigation and international air law. Also, on June 16, 2021, the ICAO announced that the final report would appear at the session of the ICAO Council, which will begin on September 13, 2021.
On June 24, 2021, the Aviation Department of the Ministry of Transport of Belarus received an «Interim Report on the incident with Ryanair flight FR4978 in the airspace of Belarus on May 23, 2021». The document noted that, although States have provided the ICAO Secretariat with certain information, additional support is still needed to complete the fact-finding investigation. In the official media reports of Belarus for June 24, 2021, the Aviation Department noted that Belarus had sent 52 documents, audio and video materials to the ICAO. «The Aviation Department continues to send materials and is working closely with the ICAO Investigation Team to establish the objective circumstances of what happened», the Department noted.
On June 28, 2021, at the 223rd session of the ICAO Council, among others, an interim report on the results of the fact-finding investigation concerning the circumstances of Ryanair flight FR4978 in Belarus got considered. The Council welcomed the preliminary information provided and thanked the Secretariat for the investigative efforts. At the same time, he acknowledged that the information and materials received to date remain insufficient for definitively establishing the facts and specific chain of events. The ICAO reported that this investigation is ongoing and it should be transparent and impartial. Experts expressed the hope that the report would appear at the next session of the Council, which begins on September 13.
On June 29, 2021, the Lithuanian Ministry of Transport and Communications issued a press release stating that the International Civil Aviation Organization needed time to gather additional information from countries and organizations related to the incident. This information is not enough to determine all the circumstances of the incident. In addition, Belarus has provided information in Russian, and they still need to be translated.
Second stage: opening of criminal cases and departure of the group to Belarus
On July 30, 2021, the Latvian State Police began criminal proceedings in connection with the emergency landing of a Ryanair plane in Minsk. Police spokeswoman, Simona Gravite, said two Latvian citizens were on board. The criminal case got initiated under the article of the Criminal Law of Latvia on criminal acts against freedom, honour and dignity of the individual. This article contains norms that provide the responsibility for kidnapping, illegal imprisonment and hostage-taking. The State Police of Latvia does not comment on international cooperation in this case.
As part of the investigation, the ICAO Council formed groups of investigators who went to Poland, Lithuania and Belarus to establish the landing circumstances. On August 11, 2021, the experts arrived in Lithuania, where they met with the Lithuanian Minister of Transport and Communications, Marius Skuodis. He noted that the ICAO independent investigation should answer what happened when the Ryanair airliner flying from Athens to Vilnius got forced to land at the Minsk airport. In Lithuania, the investigators met with representatives of other institutions. On the same day, it became known that the Prosecutor General’s Office of the country had launched a pre-trial investigation of the incident. The Ryanair plane got registered in Poland, so the law enforcement agencies of this country are also investigating the case of hijacking.
On August 23, 2021, the group arrived in Belarus and met with representatives of the Aviation Department of the Ministry of Transport. The meeting got attended by the head of the Ministry, Alexey Avramenko, Director of the Aviation Department of the Ministry of Transport Artem Sikorsky, members of the interdepartmental commission of Belarus, aviation organizations heads. Transport Minister Alexey Avramenko said that experts would be given access to all materials required for the investigation. The chairman of the ICAO group, Sylvain Lefoyer, noted that the overall picture of events has already been obtained. But it is necessary to clarify several facts, collect additional information and materials now. The team also examined the places where the plane and passengers were, the terminal building and baggage inspection areas. But the ICAO refused to communicate with Roman Protasevich, a blogger and journalist detained during the plane landing.
On October 25, 2021, during the 224th session of the ICAO Council, a specific conference was held. Here, a report on the incident with Ryanair flight FR4978 in the airspace of Belarus on May 23, 2021, got considered. The meeting got attended by a representative of Belarus, Director of the Aviation Department of the Ministry of Transport of the Republic Artem Sikorsky, he spoke via video link. The ICAO Council decided to continue collecting information. The final report got delayed until November 12, 2021. However, three days before that date, on November 9, 2021, the ICAO Council decided to postpone consideration of the report on the investigation of the incident with the Ryanair aircraft until January 2022. It was due to the volume of data provided and the need for additional clarifications.
On December 9, 2021, the Polish Internal Security Agency published the results of its investigation concerning the hijacking of the FR4978 Ryanair aircraft. According to the data, a KGB officer was working at the control tower in Minsk during the aircraft abduction. He had to instruct the employee who contacted the pilot of the plane. The officer gave instructions and decisions on the plane direction to Minsk. The KGB officer kept in constant telephone contact with someone and reported to him about what was happening with the plane at the moment. «The pilot heard first information about the threat even before receiving an email, mentioned in the interview. The Belarusian side provoked the whole situation with the plane», the Polish services said.
On January 17, 2022, the ICAO issued a report on the landing of the Ryanair flight in Minsk. It was compiled by a specific group of ICAO experts in aviation security, aircraft operation, air navigation and international air law. The report got sent to all 193 ICAO member States. «Novaya Gazeta» published some details. Thus, experts found inconsistencies in the testimony of the Belarusian authorities about the time of receipt of the anonymous letter. An email about the bomb threat got received at Minsk airport at 12:56:45 local time. But the ICAO provided a screenshot of the receipt of the message at 12:25. According to the report, the Belarusian dispatcher informed the crew that several airports received the email around 12:30 Minsk time. How he found out about it is unknown. The ICAO investigators found that the first threat letter arrived at Vilnius airport at 12:25 (in Sofia and Bucharest at 12:27 and 12:28, respectively). The report also mentions several cases of non-compliance by Belarus with standard procedures. One of the crew members remained on board after the announcement of the explosion threat, although he had to leave the plane with the passengers and other crew members. Another violation is that the KGB did not introduce an anti-terrorist operation mode in the case of the Ryanair flight. Despite the message about the bomb on board.
Reaction to the results of the investigation
The reaction to the report was mixed from different sides. Artem Sikorsky, Director of the Aviation Department of the Ministry of Transport and Communications of Belarus, stated that the ICAO group took into account Belarus’ evidence that there was no interception of the aircraft: «The fact-finding group accepted evidence from the Belarusian side that there was no interception, forced landing or rerouting of the Ryanair aircraft by Belarus, in particular, the MiG-29 military aircraft, which got previously stated. The ICAO fact-finding team noted that no visual signals were observed from the flight and cabin crew of the aircraft, and there was no communication with this aircraft. It is proof that there was no interception by the MiG-29. Another important point was in the document — that the objective control of the negotiations of the aircraft crew in the cockpit got not preserved because the crew did not turn off the recorders after the plane landed in Minsk. Thus, the crew did not save the objective control data and their audio recording of the moment when they decided to land in Minsk. It looks weird».
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said there were obvious and gross infractions in the report. «I understand that there are not enough people hiding behind these violations and who did it. After fixing violations in the ICAO report, it will be possible to take further legal steps to bring violators to justice. If this assessment is fair, of course, if illegal actions are indicated, then consequences should arise from illegal actions», he added.
Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya expressed gratitude to the ICAO: «I am grateful to the ICAO for publishing and launching public work on this case. Last summer, my team appealed to the ICAO Council President to conduct a thorough investigation into the plane hijacking and the arrest of Roman Protasevich and Sofia Sapieha. Since then, we have been in contact with the organization leadership. Today’s report did not name the perpetrators but only became a starting point in the investigation. Belarusians got convinced by the regime actions. It is possible to break the law in a matter of seconds, and the restoration of justice always takes more time. But we will achieve this, and the first steps have already been taken».
On January 31, 2022, the next meeting on the Ryanair incident and its investigation is expected. The ICAO will consider measures required after the report and Belarus’ request on the illegality of sanctions after the Ryanair plane landed.
We are categorically against the recognition of Belarus’ measures against the Ryanair FR4978 aircraft as legitimate. In this case, the illegitimate president of Belarus can receive compensation and the lifting of sanctions. Thus, it will turn out that all other actions of Lukashenka to destroy Belarusians are correct, which means that he will continue terror and repression against the people, knowing that he will not be punished for it.