- by Seamus Carey
- The Guardian
- Issue# 1964
Ryanair Flight 4978, flying on the 23rd of May from Athens, Greece to Vilnius, Lithuania, was forced to make an unexpected detour to land in Minsk, Belarus. Belarusian authorities reported receiving a threat of a bomb onboard. Upon landing in Minsk, police searched the plane, and no bomb was found. However, one of the passengers onboard, Roman Protasevich, was arrested and taken into custody, as he was considered a wanted fugitive in Belarus. Four other passengers also remained in Minsk while the plane continued on to land in Vilnius safely with the other 121 passengers.
These are the basic details of the incident that seem to be agreed upon by most sources. But regarding other details, there are a great deal of contradictory reports. However, what is universal in Western media reports is assigning blame to the Belarusian government for the whole incident and claiming it was merely a set-up to arrest the “opposition activist” and “journalist” Protasevich.
Protasevich, who is now being lauded as a brave fighter against dictatorship, is in fact, a far-right extremist who joined the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion in the Ukrainian civil war.
Within fifteen minutes of the plane’s emergency landing, EU politicians were already making public statements accusing Belarus of violating international law by diverting the flight. A phrase used by several figures was that the Belarusian authorities “endangered the lives of passengers onboard the plane” – here a quote from US-backed opposition leader in exile, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Estonia’s UN representative called it an “attack on international civilian aviation safety.” Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne used a similar phrase in her statement on the incident, saying:
“This unprecedented action put innocent lives of airline passengers at risk and was a clear breach of the international standards that underpin civil aviation.”
Keen-eyed readers might ask themselves, what exactly does this focus on the safety of the passengers have to do with the case. If Belarus committed a breach of international law by diverting a plane to arrest someone, that would seem to be the wrongdoing. However, it is not so unusual an event for a plane to make an unexpected stop. While it is a major inconvenience, it is hard to see exactly how it “endangers the passengers” to do so, especially if a bomb threat was genuinely received. We also know that the plane made it to Vilnius without further incident.
The problem is that the same international law that Belarus is accused of violating, the 1944 Chicago Convention, states that every signatory country has “complete and exclusive sovereignty over the airspace above its territory” and that “in case of interception, the lives of persons on board and the safety of aircraft must not be endangered.” This quote implies that such an interception is entirely legal, so long as this condition is met. This is precisely why politicians hostile to the Belarusian government are clamouring to claim that the passengers’ safety was endangered by the diversion, despite this appearing to be a weaker point – it is in fact a critical point for any legal action against Belarus.
This subtlety has been glossed over. So too, has the most important question of all: did Belarusian authorities receive the bomb threat?
The truthfulness of the bomb threat claim has been summarily dismissed with several arguments, all of which are deceptive. A common criticism of the claim was that at the point the plane was diverted, it was closer to Vilnius than to Minsk, so supposedly, the diversion did not make sense as the longer transit time made it more likely that the bomb would detonate. This has been used as one explanation for how the diversion “threatened the safety of passengers,” despite this allegation being completely inconsistent with the claim that the authorities invented the threat.
It also completely ignores what Belarus has stated was contained in the threat: the threat claimed to be from Palestinian group Hamas, stating that the bomb would go off in Vilnius as retaliation against the EU for its support of Israel. If this is taken at face value, then allowing the plane to continue to Vilnius could not sensibly be said to decrease the risk.
According to Belarus, the fake threat was sent to Minsk International Airport via email. One could reasonably wonder why Belarusian authorities would take it seriously, as Belarus is not an EU member and has nothing to do with their backing of Israel. But even if Belarusian authorities immediately surmised the message was not from Hamas, it would be quite reasonable for them to suspect a plot along the following lines: that a Belarusian anti-government group had actually sent it with the intention that it be ignored, then a real bomb would detonate in Vilnius, and consequently, it would be publicised that the Belarusian government had ignored the threat from “Hamas” and allowed an attack against Lithuania. While this convoluted imaginary plot did not turn out to be true, had it occurred as a possibility to Belarusian authorities, it would pose an unacceptable risk.
Whether a threat was actually received is the key question. If it was, then the Belarusian authorities’ actions were entirely logical and lawful. But Western media and politicians have summarily decided that it was not, for no reason other than the arrest of Protasevich seeming too convenient. But if it were all indeed a plot to capture Protasevich out of the self-interest of the Belarusian government, it’s a strange sort of self-interest: the EU has initiated new sanctions against Belarus in response to the incident, which would have been an outcome obvious to the hypothetical Belarusian government conspirators. Not so convenient, after all.
The capture of one wanted man doesn’t seem a worthwhile payoff for this outcome. Doesn’t it make much more sense that the grounding was a quick decision made in response to a genuinely unexpected threat? More facts should be established before passing judgement, and certainly more time taken than fifteen minutes.
The whole affair exposes Western hypocrisy. In 2010, a flight from France to Mexico was forced by US authorities to land in Canada in order to arrest a passenger. No other explanation was given. In 2013, at the US’ behest, several European countries denied airspace access to the presidential aircraft of Bolivian President Evo Morales. This forced the plane to land in Austria, upon which it was raided by Austrian police looking (mistakenly) for Edward Snowden, again on US orders. Some of the European countries apologised for their role in this unjustified grounding, but the US did not. In 2016, the Ukrainian government forced a plane to land in Kiev in order to arrest a passenger, to no outcry by the West – the plane was a Belarusian airliner en route to Minsk!
The US and its allies make endless noise about a “rules-based international order,” but the only rule they care about is getting their own way. When a rule ensures that, it must be enforced; when it contradicts that, it is happily ignored.