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A Ryanair 737-800 aircraft approaches Barcelona Airport. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | William Derricksonn)

Ryanair Flight Redirected By Belarusian Government To Arrest Dissident

Irish low-cost carrier Ryanair found itself in the middle of an international political incident when one of its flights was forced to divert to a foreign capital and one of its passengers was apprehended by law enforcement after.

Flight FR4978 on May 23, scheduled to fly from Athens, Greece to Vilnius, Lithuania, while flying in Belarusian airspace “was addressed by Belarus Air Traffic Control advising of a potential security threat on board and instructed to divert to the closest airport in Minsk, the capital of Belarus,” reported Ryanair in a note. However according to the Washington Post, at the time the incident was declared, Vilnius Airport was much closer to the location of the aircraft, albeit the Ryanair plane was still in Belarusian airspace.

“The aircraft landed safely and passengers were offloaded while security checks were completed by local authorities. Nothing untoward was found and authorities cleared the aircraft to depart together with passengers and crew approximately 7 hours on the ground in Minsk.”

Among the 170 passengers flying between Greece and Lithuania was Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich, founder of Telegram channel NEXTA, one of the most popular opposition outlets in Belarus after most media outlets opposing the regime of dictatorial President Aleksandr Lukashenko were forced to shut down in the wake of the disputed presidential elections in 2020, the New York Times reports.

Protasevich has reportedly been arrested by the country’s secret service called K.G.B. while on the ground in Minsk and not allowed to continue his journey together with all other passengers. He is charged accused of inciting hatred and mass disorder and faces life in prison — or possibly even the death penalty — if convicted and has been living in exile in Lithuania in fear of being persecuted by Belarusian authorities.

Lukashenko has been reported personally ordering two MiG-29 military jets to intercept Ryanair’s Boeing 737-800 aircraft and escort it to Minsk after the bomb threat. The Investigative Committee, Belarus’ top investigating agency, opened an investigation over a false bomb threat.

If events were to be confirmed, they would represent a blatant violation of the Chicago Convention regulating commercial international air transportation and could lead to sanctions to Belarus on behalf of the international community. The International Civil Aviation Organization, the U.N. branch overseeing all matters related to international civil aviation, has expressed “strong concerns” over the reported events.

Violation of International Conventions

The 1971 Montreal Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Civil Aviation condemns “any person [that] performs 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; or […] communicates information which he knows to be false, thereby endangering the safety of an aircraft in flight.”

The president of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen defined the incident as “utterly unacceptable”. The flight in question was linking two E.U. countries, while Greece’s foreign minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis called it an “unprecedented, shocking act” and Lithuanian’s president Gitanas Nauseda did not hesitate to define it as “abhorrent.”

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