Diverted Ryanair flight probe concludes that Belarus committed unlawful act

MONTREAL (REUTERS, AFP) – The United Nations’ aviation agency on Tuesday (July 19) for the first time blamed senior Belarus officials for a hoax last year that grounded a Ryanair Holdings flight and led to the arrest of a dissident reporter.

The plane was on its way from Athens to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, in May 2021 when Belarus controllers ordered it to land in Minsk, citing a bomb threat.

Once it was on the ground, Belarus journalist Roman Protasevich was detained along with his then-girlfriend, Ms Sofia Sapega.

The Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organisation (Icao), which had previously said it did not know who was behind the hoax, condemned Minsk for “committing an act of unlawful interference” which contravened aviation rules.

“The Icao Council acknowledged that the bomb threat against (the flight)…was deliberately false and endangered its safety,” it said in a statement.

“And furthermore, the threat was communicated to the flight crew upon the instructions of senior government officials of Belarus,” Icao said, citing new information.

The Icao studied audio recordings of the Minsk air traffic controller who was monitoring the affected flight

The Icao statement added that the council representative of Russia – a close ally of Belarus – had “expressed his State’s strong objection to identifying Belarus as the source of the unlawful interference which took place”.

Western nations have imposed sanctions against Belarus for supporting the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The Belarus foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Icao statement. Minsk previously said it acted legally and in accordance with all international norms, and accused the West of using the episode to try to undermine President Alexander Lukashenko.

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Protasevich, former editor of a prominent opposition news outlet, renounced his political activism and was released from jail into house arrest pending trial. The opposition in Belarus believes his recantation was coerced.

Last month, his then-girlfriend, Sapega, asked for a pardon from Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko after being sentenced to six years in prison for “inciting social hatred” and “illegal collection of personal data”.

The Icao Council, made up of 36 countries, had asked its president to pass the findings of the investigation on to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

The Icao’s mission is to enact the rules governing global civil air transport, but it has no power to impose sanctions.

In the event of a proven violation of international rules, its role is to provide support for any countries wishing to pronounce condemnations or apply sanctions, in accordance with the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation, the institution said.