The arrest by Belarusian authorities of Nexta Telegram channel founder Roman Protasevich on board an Irish plane travelling from Greece to Lithuania shows that Alexander Lukashenko is far from the provincial dictator that his opponents both inside the country and abroad make him out to be.
There is no point in retelling the story of the Ryanair flight’s emergency landing at Minsk airport, because there are few media outlets that haven’t covered it in detail and from every angle. As a result of this mid-air manoeuvre, Roman Protasevich is sitting in a detention centre, reading out statements through a Telegram channel; Alexander Lukashenko is getting ready to go to Sochi to consult with his Russian counterpart; and countries in the West are calling for an air blockade of Minsk and also the sealing of the Yamal–Europe pipeline.
It is clear, however, that Alexander Lukashenko is not afraid of Western sanctions. At the same time, the ingenuity of the Belarusian special services – if we assume that the message about a bomb on board came from them – suggests that their employees have been taught well.
What is less clear is why, after such a brilliantly executed special operation in Minsk, they are now falling over themselves to say that it was nothing to do with them. Supposedly, the presence of Protasevich on board the Ryanair flight came as a surprise to the Belarusian authorities, while the landing in Minsk, after the flight had already practically reached Vilnius, had been requested by the pilot himself. Finally, why blame the Palestinian movement Hamas for threatening to blow up the plane, as Artem Sikorsky from the Belarusian Ministry of Transport and Communications did, when, the evening after the incident, Hamas spokesperson Fawzi Barhum issued a statement saying that the organisation had nothing to do with the bomb threat on the plane?
“We do not use methods that some other suspicious parties may use. They seek to demonise Hamas and thwart general sympathy for the Palestinian people and their legitimate resistance,” said Barhum.
No bomb, but Minsk instead of Vilnius
A flaw in the Hamas bomb threat story is why it was decided to warn the Belarusian authorities rather than Ukraine, over which the plane also flew, or Lithuania – since the goal was to “punish the European Union”.
In such a situation, no one can force the pilot to land at an airport specified by people on the ground. Only the pilot makes such a decision, since he alone is responsible for the safety of the flight. If the pilot of the flight from Athens to Vilnius had thought it would be safer to land the plane in Vilnius, which was closer, rather than fly to Minsk airport, which was further away, then he would have done so.
The trick was that the warning had stated the bomb would explode in Vilnius. How possible it is to specify an exact location is difficult to say, but the crew had no desire to check the viability of the threat.
By specifying the location, whoever sent the threat removed the pilot’s ability to choose. All he could do was land at the second nearest airport, which was Minsk.
The time that the bomb threat was sent and received remains a slightly hazy part of the story. It is also another flaw in the official version of the Belarusian authorities.
The plane departed from Athens and, before entering Belarusian airspace, it passed through the airspace of Greece, Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine. Why did none of the aviation authorities in these countries respond to the threat? There are only two possible answers. 1) Whoever sent the threat deliberately waited until the plane was over Belarus, but this makes no sense: from their point of view, the earlier they sent the message, the more time the recipients would have had to respond. 2) The authorities of the other countries displayed appalling negligence by ignoring the threat in total disregard of flight safety regulations.
Sovereignty versus immunity
Like it or not, there is nothing in the actions of Minsk that, on a purely legal level, could be called “air piracy” or could justify any of the other accusations being levelled at the Belarusian authorities by various media outlets.
A sovereign state is sovereign not just horizontally, but also vertically – that is, within its own airspace to the edge of the atmosphere. Accordingly, it has the right to take control of whatever is happening above its territory, even in international air corridors.
The difficulty is that there is no clearly defined “quantitative” standard to determine which situation requires urgent intervention and which is not extreme enough. By default, a threat to the lives of the passengers and crew of an aeroplane or ship is considered a necessary and sufficient condition.
There is, in fact, a very fine line here. A plane is a quasi-territory of the state under whose flag it flies. A plane is considered to be in international airspace as soon as the doors close, even if it is still physically on the ground. But, unlike the territory of an embassy, its passengers do not have extraterritorial rights, which, for example, protected Julian Assange from being arrested by the British police when he was in the Ecuadorian embassy.
It is for this reason that being on board an aeroplane or ship does not give passengers immunity similar to diplomatic immunity, no matter what kind of passport they have with them. If a passenger does not have diplomatic status, he or she must comply with the requirements of the local authorities: leaving the plane, for example, or doing something else.
Therefore, the only limitation on the actions of authorities when it comes to the citizens of other states travelling by plane is the risk of getting a tit-for-tat response in relation to their own citizens abroad.
But, in the case of Ryanair, the Belarusian authorities do not even need to worry about that, because Roman Protasevich is a citizen of Belarus.
It is important to know which laws are in effect and where
Formally speaking, the Belarusian authorities acted in full compliance with the requirements of international flight safety standards.
Until the turn of the millennium, planes were hijacked every now and again because there was absolutely no pre-flight screening of passengers during boarding. Since the terrorist attacks in the US on 11 September 2001, however, safety requirements have become somewhat paranoid. The authorities are obliged to respond to each and every threat, no matter how improbable they may seem. And how they can respond is spelled out in detail. The Belarusian authorities followed exactly this procedure.
After the passengers disembarked from the Ryanair plane at Minsk airport in accordance with these rules, they became subjects of domestic law, and the Belarusian authorities were then able to do whatever they believed necessary with their own citizen. The fact that he was an opposition journalist may have added an emotional and political dimension to the incident, but not a legal one.
There have been numerous instances of a country’s special services kidnapping or killing its own citizens on the territory of another state where they were trying to hide. From the point of view of international law, such actions are illegal because each country has its own laws that are mandatory, including for foreigners. Transferring domestic conflicts to the territory of another state does not make those involved extraterritorial. But, in the case of flight FR4978, there was no incursion into a foreign territory.
Forcing a person to leave the territory of another state or abducting him by force is a crime. But, in this instance, no one forced their way onto the Ryanair flight shouting “Roman Protasevich, put your hands on your head and come with us!” All the passengers, including him, went through a standard set of procedures. What happened after that lies outside the bounds of international law and within the bounds of national legislation – in this case, Belarusian.