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How Did Lukashenko Risk the National Airline?

Issue 9 - 2021
How Did Lukashenko Risk the National Airline?

On May 23, 2021, we witnessed one of the most bizarre incidents in aviation history. A passenger aircraft was hijacked by a jet fighter!

When Ryanair’s Boeing 737 destined to Lithuania’s capital Vilnius from Greece’s capital Athens with 170 passengers from 12 countries was diverted to Belarus’ capital accompanied by a MiG-29 fighter from the Soviet era, it was only a few minutes away from the Lithuanian air space.

The reports regarding the incident reveal that Belarus’ officials deliberately diverted the airplane (which was headed to Lithuania) to Minsk to arrest an opposition journalist, stating that they received a bomb threat. When the pilots contacted the tower, they noted that they were closer to Vilnius than Minsk and that they wished to continue their flight, Belarus officials launched the fighter and forced the airplane to land.

Following the landing, the officials detained journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega who were among the passengers. It was reported that Protasevich got frustrated upon the pilots’ announcement notifying the crash-landing to Minsk and he yelled as he was escorted out of the airplane by the Belarus officials, “I will get the death penalty here.”

The 26-year-old journalist was wanted as per the accusations of extremism after the news he wrote last year for the Polish-based news agency NEXTA that published the footage of mass protests against Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko. Though Protasevich denies the accusations, he is accused of organizing mass protests and inciting social hatred.

This incident was condemned strongly by nations, politicians, organizations and airline companies across the world. Some of the world leaders denounced the incident as a “plane hijack.” 

Initial Reactions: In Violation of the International Regulations! 

United Nation’s agency, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) claimed that Ryanair’s forced landing may have contravened the Chicago Convention, which is the core aviation treaty, designed after WWII.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), on the other hand, reacted to the incident by declaring, “We condemn any intervention or forced landing that violates the international law to the aviation operations. A full investigation should be conducted by the international authorities in charge." 

Belarus Points to Hamas!

More than 24 hours after the incident, the Belarus government stated that all the developments discussed in the world were nothing but misunderstanding and that the government played no part in any of the incidents!

Hamas was accused of the incident. It was claimed that an e-mail with a extension was sent to Minsk Airport’s official e-mail account and the e-mail read:

“We, the soldiers of Hamas, demand that Israel cease the fire to the Gaza Strip. We demand that the European Union withdraw its support for Israel in this war. We are aware that the participants of the Delphi Economic Forum are returning home with the Foxtrot-Romeo 4978 numbered flight. There is a bomb on this plane. Unless our demands are fulfilled, the bomb will explode near Vilnius on May 23rd.”

The world public opinion was amused by the Belarus Government’s statement that claimed the reason behind the incident as the time of the e-mail claimed to be sent was an hour later than the diversion of the aircraft.

Why is this Claim False?

Belarus authorities’ claim seems quite suspicious as there are doubts on why the informer chose the Belarus officials instead of the officials of Greece or Lithuania. Besides, since the aircraft was closer to Vilnius than Minsk when it was instructed to divert, shouldn’t the Belarus authorities’ primary concern be the airplane’s rapid landing to Vilnius for maintaining the safety of the passengers?

A Bomb Threat Also to a Lufthansa Aircraft!

Curiously, a day after the incident, on May 24th, it was claimed that another tip was received regarding a Lufthansa flight (flight number LH1487) from Minsk to Frankfurt. The government declared that an anonymous e-mail revealing a terrorist action plan was sent to the airport and that a search was carried out on the airplane. The airplane headed towards Frankfurt after a two-hour delay.

After this incident, it was thought that an attempt was made to make the Ryanair incident look more convincing by claiming that there was another potential problem on a plane without any opposition journalists. 

What Does the Legislation Suggest?

According to the experts, there are two main points regarding whether or not Ryanair’s forced landing initiated by Belarus is legal. 

The first point is whether Belarus authorities had the power to divert the airplane to Minsk. Though it may not be convincing, the grounds for landing an airplane escorted by fighter jet is the existence of a bomb in the airplane, thus security. In this respect, the decision adopted may be legally justified.

The 1944 Chicago Convention allows Belarus to order a crash landing to a civilian aircraft flying over its land. However, to exercise this right, Belarus has to have “reasonable grounds.” Moreover, such calls should be notified to the pilots in line with the regulations.

At this point, the Belarus authorities are obliged to prove that both conditions were met. Within the scope of the investigation initiated by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), Belarus authorities will strive to persuade the committee that their action was legal by revealing the evidence.

Even though the Belarus authorities manage to justify the forced landing of the aircraft, Protasevich and his girlfriend Sapega’s arrest is a completely different subject. According to the ICAO regulations, the flight numbered FR4978 is under the jurisdiction of Poland, the country where the aircraft was registered. When the aircraft was diverted to Minsk, the flight was on course. Therefore, no country has the right to escort a passenger out of a civilian airplane and detain him by accusing him of the offences or suspicious cases other than the ones committed during that flight. Belarus has almost no ground to defend its actions.

When Belarus authorities’ detention of Protasevich and Sapega due to an offence that has no connection with the flight was finalized, Poland where the aircraft is registered may have a right to make legal demands against Belarus for violating the rights originating in ICAO agreements. Furthermore, other countries may have a right of litigation against Belarus at the International Court of Justice as the incident threatened the global civil aviation system. 

Even though Poland has denounced Belarus’ actions as “state terror” and issued a condemnation message, the country can still do more. The lawyers claim that Poland has the right to initiate talks via diplomatic representations for the release of the detainees.

Under normal circumstances, Belarus should make an official application to the Polish government which owns the aircraft or to Lithuania’s government as the airplane was scheduled to land on Vilnius to request the extradition of the persons who would be detained. 

Sanctions Against Belarus

The international reaction to the incident suggested that Belarus should be communicated openly about the political and economic prices of such universal violations of law.

Global airlines and international organizations one by one started to impose severe sanctions against Belarus after the incident ended with the arrest of a journalist who was a passenger of the airplane... 

The United Kingdom has been one of the first countries to take firm steps against Belarus. The country suspended all permits of the Belarus airlines, including both the scheduled and chartered flights until further notice. Also, all aircraft registered in the United Kingdom were instructed to avoid the Belarus air space.

Following the United Kingdom, the U.S. and the European Union rapidly decided to impose flight bans to Belarus Airlines in their air space. Likewise, the EU countries’ airlines were banned from entering Belarus’ air space. The airlines updated their flight routes. 

At the beginning of July, a more surprising decision was declared by the U.S. The Secretary of Transportation issued a new order that restricted the travels between the U.S. and Belarus. Washington D.C. underlined the concerns regarding the implementation of a forced landing to arrest an opposition journalist and banned the ticket sales of the airlines between two countries excluding the flights to be conducted merely for humanitarian or national security purposes. Presently, there are no non-stop scheduled flights between the U.S. and Belarus.

Belavia is Most Affected! 

The European Union’s and the United Kingdom’s decision to close their air spaces to Belarus airlines affected the country’s national airline Belavia the most. The company had to revise its flight network severely to keep up with the restrictions.

Belavia’s executives condemned the European leaders’ sanction decisions and implementations regarding the air space as they found the sanctions’ impacts over Belavia unjust since Belavia had no connection with the initiators of the incident. 

On the other hand, the EU and UK airlines’ decision to avoid Belarus air space in their flights triggered a deep economic and political crisis in the country. In this way, in office since 1994, 66-year-old Lukashenko’s adopting such political decision caused the greatest damage to his country’s national airline and ultimately to his own country 

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