Each of them faces from 20 years in prison to life imprisonment.
The US authorities have filed charges of aerial terrorism against Belarusian officials who, in their opinion, are involved in the incident with the forced landing of a Ryanair aircraft in Minsk, according to the website of the Ministry of Justice.
Charges were brought against Belaeronavigatsia CEO Leanid Chura, his deputy Aleh Kazyuchyts, as well as two KGB officers of Belarus. All of them are charged with “conspiracy to carry out an act of air terrorism”.
The indictment, which has been filed in federal court for the Southern District of New York, alleges that Belarusian officials fabricated information that there was a bomb on the Ryanair board. This was done in order to detain Raman Pratasevich, who was on the plane.
The Ministry of Justice noted that these actions endangered the lives of the passengers of the aircraft, including four US citizens who were on board.
“The accused are on the territory of Belarus. Each of them faces from 20 years in prison to life imprisonment,” the Ministry of Justice said in a statement.
What happened to the Ryanair plane?
The incident with the landing at the Minsk airport of Ryanair flight number FR4978 occurred on May 23, 2021. Initially, it was said that the plane made an emergency landing, and soon it became known that the reason was a report of mining. On board were Raman Pratasevich, former editor-in-chief of the NEXTA Telegram channel, and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, who were detained after landing.
At the Minsk airport, the evacuation of passengers did not begin immediately. They later recalled that they had to wait for some time before leaving the plane.
State media and pro-government Telegram channels on the same day wrote that the information was allegedly immediately reported to Lukashenka, who allowed the landing and sent a fighter jet to escort the flight.
The information that the plane was escorted by the MiG-29 fighter was confirmed by Deputy Commander of the Air Force and Air Defense Forces of Belarus, Major General Andrei Gurtsevich.
The very next day, on May 24, Belarus 1 TV channel showed an excerpt from the conversation between the dispatcher and the pilot. According to it, the decision to land the plane in Minsk was made by the crew. However, already on May 25, the Aviation Department of Belarus published on its website a full transcript of the conversation between the dispatcher and the pilot. As it turned out, the insistent recommendations to land the plane in Minsk were transmitted by the Belarusian dispatcher, but in the article by “Belarus 1” his words were attributed to the pilot.
The report of the Department of Aviation cited the full text of the letter, which was received at email@example.com from the email address protonmail.com: “We, Hamas soldiers, demand that Israel cease fire in the Gaza Strip. We demand that the European Union withdraw its support for Israel in this war. Delphi Economic Forum participants are known to be returning home on flight FR4978. This plane is bombed. If you do not comply with our demands, the bomb will explode on May 23 over Vilnius.”
On the same day, a Hamas spokesman issued a refutation of this information:
“These are not our methods at all. Some suspicious parties are doing this to demonize Hamas and interfere with the world's sympathy for the Palestinian people and their legitimate resistance, the organization's spokesman said.
And on May 27, representatives of the email provider Proton Technologies AG said that the threatening letters were sent after the plane turned back to the Minsk airport.
In June, the head of Ryanair, Michael O'Leary, speaking in the transport committee of the House of Commons of the British Parliament, said that the Belarusian side put pressure on the pilot, threatening him with an explosion if the plane entered Lithuanian airspace. O'Leary said the pilot asked to be connected to the Ryanair operations center in Warsaw, but the air controllers refused, saying that no one was answering calls there. According to the head of Ryanair, there was serious pressure on the crew to land in Minsk. “He was not obliged to do this [to land the plane in Minsk], but he had no other alternative,” the head of the airline said.
On June 16, the ICAO Council reported that Belarus, Poland, Greece, Ireland, Lithuania and Switzerland provided some information to investigate the incident. The interim report of the fact finding investigation team was promised to be provided around June 23, 2021, and the full report in the autumn. The interim report did appear a few days later, and its main conclusion was that there was still not enough information to complete the investigation.
In autumn, the full report also did not appear, its publication was postponed until the winter. The Department of Aviation demanded that ICAO provide “objective control data from the aircraft,” as they still could not understand why the pilot decided to land in Minsk.
In December, it became known that former air traffic controller Aleh Halehau, who worked on the day the plane landed, left Belarus. He told Polish investigators that it was a KGB special operation. The Belarusian authorities called the information “fake”. In response, the Polish side published an audio recording of the conversations between the air traffic controller and the pilot of a Ryanair plane that landed in Minsk. On the recording, a third voice is clearly audible, which tells the dispatcher how to answer one or another question from the pilot.
On January 17, the ICAO released a fact-finding report on the landing at the Minsk airport of Ryanair flight FR4978, on which Raman Pratasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega were flying. The report was presented to all 193 member states of the organization, including 36 countries that are elected to a special Council.
On January 31, representatives of the ICAO Council will hold a discussion based on the findings of the report and decide what to do next.