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When Belarus forced down a plane, it may have committed state-sponsored hijacking

International treaties outlaw false communications that might endanger a flight

- May 23, 2021

Earlier Sunday, Ryanair Flight 4978 from Greece to Lithuania was over Belarusian airspace, when it was contacted by local air traffic control. The controllers claimed that there might be a bomb on board and ordered the plane to land in Minsk, Belarus’s capital city.

The evidence suggests they were concerned with a very different threat — to the regime of Belarus’s longtime autocratic ruler, Alexander Lukashenko. One of the passengers on the plane was an opposition journalist, Roman Protasevich, whom Belarusian authorities wanted to take into custody. According to reported eyewitnesses: “One guy was very distressed [when we were diverted to Minsk]. Later we were taken out of the plane in groups of 4. He told us who he was and added ‘I am facing a death penalty here.’ He was accompanied by military all the time.”

Belarus seems to have used a fake bomb threat to force a plane to land upon the personal command of Lukashenko, according to Belarusian state media, so that it could grab a political dissident, in an act the U.S. ambassador to Belarus, Julie Fisher, called “dangerous and abhorrent.” Here’s what you need to know.

Protasevich is a thorn in the side of the Belarusian regime

Why did the regime want to capture him? Protasevich is the former editor in chief of Nexta, a channel on the Telegram social media service that plays a key role in reporting on the protest movement against Lukashenko. The demonstrations briefly captured the world’s attention in August when Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, appeared to lose his bid for a sixth term against Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.

Tikhanovskaya was running in the place of her husband, Sergei, who had been preemptively arrested by Lukashenko’s government to prevent him from challenging the president. She joined with women connected to other imprisoned and exiled candidates to run on a simple platform of rerunning the election with their involvement. But they, too, were forced into exile, and Lukashenko turned to his patron, Russian President Vladimir Putin, for support.

For the past year, Tikhanovskaya has tried to rally international attention to Belarus but has had difficulty thanks to the pandemic, U.S. elections, and the poisoning and imprisonment of Alexei Navalny in Russia. Lukashenko has drawn on Russian support to stay in power.

The incident appears to have been planned

We will find out more about exactly what happened over the coming days. Protasevich had reported being hassled in the airline queue in Athens by Russian speakers who took a picture of his documents. As the flight approached its destination in Lithuania, Belarusian air traffic control ordered the plane to Minsk, which they asserted was the nearest international airport, although Vilnius was much closer. At that point, the plane was intercepted by an armed fighter jet (which was personally ordered by Lukashenko) and prevented from leaving Belarusian airspace.

After escorting the plane to Minsk, the authorities removed the passengers and luggage from the plane and arrested Protasevich. He faces 12 to 15 years in prison and the mistreatment that opponents of the regime regularly receive.

The struggle in Belarus may precipitate an international crisis

Officials from other countries are beginning to react. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said, “Hijacking of a civilian plane is an unprecedented act of state terrorism,” which “cannot go unpunished.”

These are strong words — but unless some unexpected evidence emerges, they may be justified. Belarus is a signatory to the 1971 Montreal Civil Aviation Convention and the 1988 Airport Protocol, which obliges it to suppress unlawful acts to civil aviation. The two provisions explicitly prohibit threats to the safety of passengers and crew on board civil aviation, including “[performing] an act of violence against a person on board an aircraft in flight if that act is likely to endanger the safety of that aircraft” and “[communicating] information which he knows to be false, thereby endangering the safety of an aircraft in flight.”

The convention and protocol have been signed and ratified by nearly every state. They underpin airport and airline security standards across the world. These treaties are why joking about bombs in the security line leads to arrest and being disruptive on an aircraft in the air will lead to emergency landings. Without these treaties, there would be no commonly shared standards for civil aviation requirements, severely restricting air travel between countries.

If Belarus used force to divert a civilian aircraft from its intended destination for a political purpose unrelated to physical security, then it may have committed a state-sanctioned hijacking and sabotage of civil aviation. When governments have broken the strong international norms against disturbing civil aviation, they have been subjected to international condemnation, including for shoot-downs (the Soviet Union in 1983, the United States in 1988, Russia in 2014 and Iran in 2020) when the guilty parties claimed mistakes. Those who denied responsibility have been punished with economic sanctions.

In 2013, several European countries blocked Evo Morales’s Bolivian state plane from using their airspace because of suspicions that Edward Snowden, who had leaked U.S. intelligence files, was on the plane. Although governmental airplanes are not covered by the relevant conventions, the countries apologized when the plane landed in Vienna and it turned out that Snowden was not on board.

Weakening global norms on civil aviation would mean that airlines would have to take account of geopolitics when devising flight paths, perhaps having to check the political activities of their passengers to avoid state-sanctioned hijacking. Pilots wouldn’t know whether information about a bomb on board is real or a prelude to a state-sanctioned action to ground a plane. At minimum, these problems would cause longer and more expensive flights for individuals and cargo and disrupt the global economy.

It’s not clear what the response will be

European leaders across the board have condemned Belarus’s action, but they have not yet announced their counteraction. The protest movement in Belarus had largely slipped from international attention, but it is now clearly relevant again.

Yuval Weber, PhD, (@yuvalweber) is a research assistant professor at Texas A&M’s Bush School of Government and Public Service in Washington, D.C. He also serves as the Bren Chair of Russian Military and Political Strategy at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Future Warfare at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Va.