KidnappingBelarus Kidnapping: What International Law Says about Capture of Dissident journalist Roman Protasevich

By Kanstantsin Dzehtsiarou and Arman Sarvarian

Published 25 May 2021

The full details of what happened with the plane which flew from Athens in Greece to Vilnius in Lithuania on May 23, and which was forced, by the Belarus air force, to land in Minsk, remain a matter of dispute. But even if Belarus can show that its diversion of the plane was lawful, the detention by the Belarus police of opposition blogger Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend is another question entirely. Under the ICAO treaties, Flight FR4978 was under the jurisdiction of Poland as the country of registration of the aircraft. The aircraft was still “in flight,” even when diverted to Minsk. No country has the right to detain suspects on a civil aircraft for crimes that were not committed on board that aircraft.

Here’s what we know: the Ryanair aircraft carrying dissident Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich was scheduled to fly from Athens in Greece to Vilnius in Lithuania on May 23. While in Belarusian airspace, the pilot was ordered to divert from its course and to land in Minsk. On the ground, the airport authorities searched the baggage of the passengers, checked their identities and detained at least two of them: Protasevich – a prominent opponent of Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko – and his girlfriend, law student Sofia Sapega.

But the full details of what happened remain a matter of dispute. The Belarusian authorities claim that they received an anonymous letter claiming that Hamas had planted a bomb on board and so they had duly ordered the pilot to land the aircraft so they could find and destroy the bomb if the report was true.

This claim appears doubtful. It is unclear why someone would decide to notify the authorities of Belarus about the bomb, rather than, for example, the authorities in Greece or Lithuania. When the aircraft was diverted, it was closer to Vilnius than to Minsk. If the safety of the passengers was the primary concern of Belarusian authorities, they would have probably allowed it to quickly land in Vilnius. Finally, a military aircraft was sent to accompany the Ryanair flight to land at Minsk airport. In the event, no bomb was found on board.

Legal Problems
There are two main legal questions with the actions of Belarus. The first is whether Belarus had the power to divert the aircraft from its flight path to land in Minsk. Although the facts remain murky, the apparent justification for the interception of the plane by a fighter jet was its safety due to a suspected bomb on board.

The method by which Belarus seemingly ordered the pilot to make an emergency landing at Minsk may be legally significant. While the Convention on International Civil Aviation 1944 authorized Belarus to order a civil aircraft flying above its territory to land, Belarus must have had “reasonable grounds” to do so. Also, it was required to issue the order in compliance with its published national regulations regarding the interception of civil aircraft.