On January 17, it became known that ICAO released a report on the forced landing of Ryanair flight FR4978 Athens-Vilnius. The text of the report itself has not yet been published on the organization’s website. But we hope to see it in the very near future. Since this incident is of particular importance for Belarus, and its consequences have an undeniable impact directly on the dictator’s «wallets». Today we are dealing with the main chronicle of events related to the landing and their further development.
Chronicle May 23, 2021 – the day of the plane landing
On May 23, 2021 Boeing 737-8AS (registration number SP-RSM) of the Polish airline Buzz (a subsidiary of the Irish airline company, Ryanair Holdings), was conducting a flight from Athens to Vilnius (flight number FR4978). 6 crew members and 126 passengers were on board.
At 12:33 p.m. of Minsk time (UTC+3 (GMT+3)), 3 minutes after entering the airspace of Belarus, the pilots of the flight 4978 received information from Belarusian air traffic controllers about a bomb on board of their liner.
At 12:54 of Minsk time (UTC+3 (GMT+3)), after asking for clarifications and having received recommendations of the Belarusian air traffic controller, the captain diverted the aircraft to Minsk National Airport, although territorially the aircraft was closer to Vilnius Airport.
Later the head of Ryanair, Michael O’Leary, said that the pilot was under significant pressure exerted by the air traffic controller Aleh Halehau, who forced the captain to lend the aircraft in Minsk: he said it was a red alert. So, the pilot had no other alternative, as when he tried to seek advice from the airline, he was given false excuses by Belarusian officials that Ryanair was not answering the phone.
According to the statement of the Deputy Commander in Chief of the Air Forces and Air Defense Artillery, Major-General Andrei Hurtsevich, Aliaksand Lukashenka gave a personal order to send a Belarusian fighter jet to escort the liner to Minsk airport, and it happened after the liner hade turned in Minsk direction.
At 13:15 of Minsk time (UTC+3 (GMT+3)), the flight FR4978 landed in Minsk. Belarusian special services started inspecting the luggage and the passengers.
The passenger Raman Pratasevich was arrested after the landing of the aircraft. Together with him, his girlfriend Sofia Sapega was detained.
During the inspection in Minsk the passengers of the aircraft had to wait for 2.5 hours without access to food, water, toilet and without possibility to use their mobile phones.
Upon termination of the inspection, besides Raman Pratasevich and Sofia Sapega, three citizens of Russian Federation, who had got on the plane in Athens, did not get on board, too. As it turned out later, they were in fact 2 citizens of Belarus and 1 citizen of Greece.
As the head of Ryanair, Michael O’Leary, said, after the landing several unidentified people went inside the aircraft with video cameras and made multiple attempts to force the air crew confirm on the video that their landing in Minsk was voluntary. However, the air crew refused to confirm that.
At 20:48 of Minsk time (UTC+3 (GMT+3)), having spent 6.5 hours at Minsk Airport, the aircraft was allowed to depart.
At 21:25 of Vilnius time (UTC/GMT +2) the flight landed in Vilnius Airport. There the passengers and the crew of the flight were met by Ingrida Šimonytė, Prime Minister of Lithuania, and by representatives of Belarusian diaspora in Lithuania.
Who Raman Pratasevich and Sofia Sapega are
In October 2015 Raman Pratasevich and Stsiapan Putsila created a Telegram channel called NEXTA.
In August 2020, during the large-scale Internet disconnection in the first days after the presidential elections in Belarus, the channel became the main source of information about the protests that broke out in the country, and later it became a means of protest coordination.
On 27 September 2020 Raman Pratasevich resigned from the position of the Editor in Chief of the channels NEXTA and NEXTA Live.
On 5 November 2020 the Belarusian regime charged Raman Pratasevich in absentia under three articles of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus. He was accused of organization of mass riots (Article 293), organization of actions that attack public order (Article 342) and incitement of social hatred on the basis of the occupation (Article 130, part 3).
On 19 November 2020 the KGB of the Republic of Belarus put Pratasevich on the terrorist list.
Sofia Sapega is a citizen of Russian Federation, a student of European Humanities University in Vilnius.
At a later time, Sofia Sapega was accused under Article 342 part 1 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus and a criminal case was launched against her (Organization of group actions that seriously harm public order and inherent in flagrant disobedience to the legitimate demands of the authorities or entailing disruptions in the work of transport, enterprises, entities or organizations, or active participation in such actions in the absence of a graver offense).
Events following the downing of the aircraft
May 23, 2021
- Tadeush Hichan, a participant of NEXTA Telegram channel, that edited Pratasevich before, said that Belarusian KGB agents had boarded the plane and they «initiated a fight with Ryanair crew» insisting that a self-made explosion device was on board of the aircraft.
Lina Beisiene, a spokeswoman for Lietuvos oro uostai, the operator of Lithuanian airports, informed AFP Agency that Minsk National Airport claimed that the flight had been changed «because of the conflict between a crew member and passengers»; however, one of the passengers said there had been no conflict between the crew and the passengers on board.
Right after the incident, the leader of the Belarusian opposition Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya called on ICAO to investigate the reasons of the incident and to take measures up to excluding Belarus from ICAO.
As for the four Russians that did not re-board the plane in Minsk, the director of Ryanair airlines assumed they were most likely the KGB agents accompanying Pratasevich.
May 24, 2021
Making reference to Sofia Sapega’s mother, Anna Dudich, the BBC informed that her daughter, who had been detained the day before, was at Minsk temporary detention facility in Okrestin lane.
The Russian aviation expert Vadim Lukashevich noticed that the FR4978 flight course over Belarus had become unusual even before the turn: on the basis of the raw sensor data of Flightradar24 he claimed that the aircraft had not started the descent above Belarus, although it usually happens when a plane is to land in Vilnius. He assumed that the unusual itinerary might have indicated that the pilots were trying to maintain the initial direction in order to get to Lithuanian airspace as soon as possible, but had to deviate from the course after the Belarusian jet fighter interfered. According to the pilot, the captain of Airbus A320, Andrei Litvinov, the course of the airplane prior to the turn at the atypically high for a final stage cruising altitude indicates not the attempt to escape from the jet fighter, but that the Belarusian air traffic controller did not give the pilot the clearance to descent, although he was obliged to do that to pass the aircraft on to a Lithuanian air traffic controller.
At a press conference the Director for the Aviation Department of the Ministry of Transport and Communication of the Republic of Belarus, Artsiom Sikorski, read a communication about a bomb on boar, that Minsk Airport had received on May, 23 allegedly from HAMAS. It contained a threat to blow up the aircraft above Vilnius and demands to Israel («to stop fire at the Gaza Strip») and European Union (to stop supporting Israel). The same day the press-secretary of HAMAS Fauzi Barkhum made a statement dissociating HAMAS from the threat of mining the aircraft.
May 25, 2021
- The Press Secretary of the Kremlin, Dmitry Peskov, made a statement. «Moscow hopes that in the near future the authorities of Belarus will free the Russian citizen Sofia Sapega, detained together with the co-founder of the Telegram channel HEXTA, Raman Pratasevich.»
The Belarusian Aviation Department published a transcript of radio communications between the Belarusian service of air traffic control and the flight FR4978. According to the transcript, the Belarusian air traffic controller told the pilots about the threat to blow up the aircraft above Vilnius, added that the information about the bomb on board arrived from «special services», and then said that airport security officers got the information by email. The pilot asked which airport received that threat, Vilnius or Athens one, and the air traffic controller claimed that the message about the bomb arrived to «several airports» (later Aliaksandr Lukashenka claimed that the signal about the bomb was received in Athens, Vilnius and Minsk at the same time). After that the Belarusian air traffic controller multiple times recommended the pilots to redirect the aircraft to Minsk Airport.
- According to the data received by the collaborative investigation of the Centre «Dossier» with «Der Spiegel» and «The Daily Beast», it turned out that the email from «Akhmed Yurlanov» about the bomb on board of the aircraft was received by the administration of Lithuanian Airports at 12:54, and by Minsk Airport at 12:57 — 23 or 24 minutes after the information about the email had been communicated to the pilot by the air traffic controller (12:33—12:34). The Swiss Internet provider «Proton Technologies AG» later confirmed that the communication about the bomb on board of the Ryanair flight was sent after the plane had turned towards Minsk.
Sofia Sapega was arrested by a court decision for the term of two months under charges not known at that moment.
- Belarusian Governmental News Agency BELTA claimed that the pilots were asking for clearance to land in Minsk; however, according to a Ryanair representative, cited by the Russian newspaper «Novaya Gazeta», it were the Belarusian air traffic controllers who informed the flight crew of the bomb threat and ordered them to divert the aircraft from its course to Minsk. The Belarusian TV channel «Belarus 1» demonstrated extracts of records of the radio communications changing the places of the air traffic controller’s words with the pilot’s words with the purpose to create an impression that it was the air crew who decided to land the plane in Minsk (allegedly, when the air traffic controller asked the question about the change of course «Whose recommendation is this?» the pilots replied: «It’s our recommendation».)
May 26, 2021
- Aliaksandr Lukashenka said that three passengers left the plane in Minsk because they did not want to go back to Belarus from Vilnius later.
May 27, 2021
- The Prime Minister of Greece, Kyriakas Mitsotakis, claimed that they did not manage to confirm the fact of surveillance, and that there «was no evidence that agents might have been on board». At the same time, an officer of the Greek Ministry of Internal Affairs, that chose to remain anonymous, after having examined the records of the surveillance cameras in hotels and at the Athens Airport, confirmed that Raman Pratasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega had been followed by at least three special service operatives with Russian passports, that were acting on behalf of Belarus.
June 3, 2021
Belarusian state TV channel ONT showed a video with the ex-editor-in-chief of the Telegram channel NEXTA, Raman Pratasevich, and the head of ONT, Marat Markau. In that video Raman was constantly repeating that he was collaborating with the investigators and making confession. At the same time, an abrasion was noticeable on his forehead. It cannot be excluded that the video was recorded under duress. Raman’s father is confident that his son agreed to participate in ONT transmission under torture.
June 14, 2021
The Telegram channel NEXTA was designated as «extremist» in Belarus on October 19, 2020. Its co-founder, the detained Raman Pratasevich participated in the press conference in Minsk on Ryanair flight incident, organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus. The UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab tweeted that Pratasevich «was clearly under duress,» adding that «the persecution of those defending human rights and media freedom in Belarus must stop.» «Those involved in the filming, coercion and direction of the interview must be held accountable,» he said.
June 25, 2021
- Raman Pratasevich and the Russian citizen Sofia Sapega were transferred from prison to house arrest.
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) appointed a commission to investigate the incident with forced landing of Ryanair aircraft in Minsk. The working document, presented to ICAO council members, the status of investigation of the incident was stated, i.e.: an investigation commission was appointed, the list of questions to be answered was determined, the questions on the incident were directed to a number of states.
December 8, 2021
Aleh Halehau, the air traffic controller of «Belaeronavigation», after his escape to Poland, said that a Belarusian KGB officer had been present at the control tower who «at the key moment took the air-traffic control service under his control». That officer was constantly talking with somebody on the phone informing that person of everything that was happening to the aircraft. Several days later the special services of Poland published the audio recording of the communications between the air traffic controller and the plane crew: it could be heard on the recording that a third person instructed the air traffic controller in Russian on how to hold the negotiations with the pilot (in particular, it can be heard that the recommendation to land in Minsk came from the Belarusian side).
The Russian citizen Sofia Sapega was brought in a final indictment under seven articles of the Criminal Code. Among them: incitement of social hatred and hostility, crime against informational security and rules for the treatment of personal data, threats against law enforcement officers. She is facing up to 6 years in prison.
December 21, 2021
- The accused Sofia Sapega pleaded Aliaksandr Lukashenka for mercy.
January 11, 2022
- Belarus called the Polish audio recording of the conversation with Ryanair pilot a montage.
January 14, 2022
- The criminal case against the Russian citizen Sofia Sapega, accused of incitement of hatred and organization of violence against enforcers, was brought to Grodno regional court.
Economic and political consequences of the incident
May, 24, 2021
- The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, declares that a three-billion-euro EU investment package for Belarus will remain on hold and frozen until the country turns democratic.
Participants of the EU Summit make a decision to ban flights over their territories for Belarusian air lines, and also recommend the European air companies to avoid the airspace of Belarus.
- The UK Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, describes the act as a «reckless, cynical and dangerous hijacking of a Ryanair flight by Belarus government» and says further sanctions are being considered against Belarus. The operating permit for Belavia, the country’s state-owned airline, has also been suspended in the UK. Also, the UK authorities recommend their air companies to avoid the airspace of Belarus for the sake of safety of passengers.
Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs describes the incident as «contrary to international law» and says that the reaction should be «strong and effective».
- In Riga, near the hotel «Radisson Blu Hotel Latvija», Belarusian state flag is publicly removed from a display representing the nations at the Ice Hockey World Championships in Latvia, in protest at the alleged «state-sponsored hijacking» of a plane by the authorities in Minsk. Mayor of Riga, Martins Stakis, and Latvian Foreign Minister, Edgars Rinkēvičs, are pictured replacing the state Belarusian flag with the white-red-white flag of free Belarus. In response the Belarusian regime demands all the employees of Latvian Embassy in Belarus to leave the country within 24 hours. Riga announces the reciprocal expulsion of diplomats and asks the employees of the Embassy of Belarus in Riga to leave the country.
May, 26, 2021
Poland bans Belarusian airplanes from entering the Polish airspace.
May, 29, 2021
The Moscow City Duma deputy from Party «Yabloko», Sergey Mitrokhin, appeals to the Chairman of the RF Investigative Committee, Alexander Bastrykin, demanding to launch a criminal case against Aliaksandr Lukashenka for his actions in relation to the Russian citizen Sofia Sapega and the downing of the Ryanair aircraft. The deputy demands to interrogate Lukashenka during his visit to Sochi on May 28, 2021. The Appeal was published on the website of the Radio Station «Echo of Moscow».
June 3, 2021
The USA renew the previously suspended sanctions (full blocking restrictions) against nine Belarusian state oil and chemistry enterprises (Belarusian Oil Trading House, JSC Naftan, Belneftekhim, Belneftekhim USA, Inc., JSC Belshina, JSC Grodno Azot, JSC Grodno Khimvolokno, JSC Lakokraska, JSC Polotsk Steklovolokno), and also issue personal sanctions against representatives of Belarusian regime. Formally, the USA issued blocking sanctions against the biggest Belarusian enterprises as long ago as in 2011.
June 5, 2021
EU bans state Belarusian airlines from entering the territory of the European Union.
June 7, 2021
Serbia announces that its airspace remains open for Belarusian aircrafts, but declares its closure on June 21, 2021.
June 21, 2021
Heads of EU Ministries of Foreign Affairs agreed on restrictions against eight enterprises and 78 physical persons (employees of Belarusian Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Transport, military officers, state mass media journalists, deputies, university rectors): they are banned from entering the EU and their assets are frozen. The list of persons under personal sanctions includes the Russian oligarch, Mikhail Gutseriev, and the middle son of Aliaksandr Lukashenka, the Chairman of the State-Public Association «Presidential Sport’s Club», Dzmitry Lukashenka.
June 24, 2021
Due to violations of human rights in Belarus, repressions against the civil society, democratic opposition and journalists, and also the forced landing of the Irish Ryanair aircraft in Minsk followed by the arrest of Raman Pratasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, the Council of European Union introduces sectoral sanction against the Republic of Belarus. It is prohibited to deliver in Belarus the equipment, technology and software with the basic function of monitoring or wiretapping of telephone and Internet communications, and dual-use goods and technologies for military purposes. The trade of oil products, potassium chloride and goods for production of tobacco products becomes restricted.
On May 28, 2021 the Seim of Poland passed by a solid vote a Resolution in which they disapproved of the actions of Belarus regarding the Ryanair aircraft.
«We, Deputies of the Sejm of Poland, disapprove of the act of state terrorism committed on May 23, 2021, in result of which a Ryanair aircraft was forced to land in Minsk and a threat to aviation safety and security was created, as well as of the illegal detention of Raman Pratasevich and Sofia Sapega by Belarusian authorities.»
- On June 10, 2021 the European Parliament passed a Resolution on Belarus and the incident with the Ryanair aircraft and called on the EU to introduce tough economic sanctions against the «criminal» regime of Aliaksandr Lukashenka.
The European Parliament acknowledged the downing of Ryanair aircraft in Minsk to be an «act of state terrorism», as outlined in the Resolution adopted in plenary meeting In Strasbourg. 626 European deputies voted for the resolution, 16 voted against, 36 abstained in the voting.
- On October 7, 2021 the deputies to the European Parliament adopted a Resolution on Belarus. In the Resolution they demanded to extend the sanctions against the authorities of Belarus and to bring the case to the International Court of Justice. 506 deputies voted for the Resolution, 29 voted against, 139 abstained in the voting.
ICCI «Our House» is convinced that the landing of the plane on May 23, 2021 is a terrorist act, and those guilty of committing this crime should be held accountable according to the letter of the law. The real law, but the one that now exists in Belarus.