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United States launches criminal case over Boeing 737 landing in Minsk

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On May 23, 2021, we witnessed the notorious landing of Ryanair flight FR4978 with Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega on board.

The plane was traveling from Athens to Vilnius, and three minutes after entering the Belarusian airspace the pilots were told by an air traffic controller that, according to the Belarusian security service, the plane had a bomb on board. 

In January 2022, ICAO published a report on this incident.
The report says that “since neither the bomb nor its traces were found during the pre-takeoff check in Athens as well as numerous examinations in Belarus and Lithuania, the bomb warning was recognized as deliberately false information”. A deliberately false statement putting aircraft security at risk is a legal offense according to Montreal Convention article 1 clause ‘e’. The investigators failed to attribute the act of unlawful interference to any person or state.” This can be deemed as disproving of EU charges against Belarus.

However, it is worth noting that ICAO Council, through the investigation, cannot identify guilty or not guilty or make somebody liable.

In accordance with 1971 Convention for the suppression of unlawful acts against the safety of civil aviation, ICAO Council determines the jurisdiction for this case, states concerned countries and recommends that they cooperate in investigation.

1971 Convention states that several countries may be interested in a thorough investigation: for example, Ireland, as the aircraft registry state, aircraft landing states (Belarus and Lithuania), and the state whose citizens were on board (the United States with four citizens on board).
The United States used this right.

This January, the U.S. authorities brought air piracy charges against four Belarus citizens involved in the forced Ryanair plane landing in May 2021.

From the legal perspective, this case is highly interesting for several reasons.
The territorial principle of investigation and judgement prevails in the legal law. So, if a crime happened on the Belarusian territory, what is the United States looking for here?

Four component elements of the crime (subject, object, the subjective side, and the objective side) are required to bring somebody to account in criminal law. Air piracy is a deliberate offense. The direct intention (the subjective side) is aimed at someone else’s property seizure.
In case of Ryanair landing, there was none.

The landing was justified by a bomb on board the aircraft. This is terrorism rather than piracy.
ICAO report shows that the information about the bomb was an act of unlawful interference that has to be responded to. The source of this intel does not matter. Such information can be validated only through checking which was done in Minsk airport. There were no explosive devices found and the report claims the intel about it was misleading. Thankfully, bomb information is usually false. However, such messages must be responded to quickly and taken seriously even if the source is anonymous.

If air traffic controllers charged in the USA knew for a fact that there was no bomb on board, it is not terrorism but a deliberately misleading message about a terrorism act being prepared, which is a much less dangerous crime.

At the same time, the assumption that there was such a deliberately false bomb warning is highly questionable. Those people charged could have no idea there was no bomb on board. The U.S. government could hardly identify the source of the message.

It is important to note that flight security is the priority task for any airline and any state’s aviation authorities. This is why it looks like aviation authorities even upon a non-confirmed bomb warning had to order the aircraft to land at the closest airport.

And this is why the U.S. future legal charges raise doubts. It is not the struggle for justice rather America’s battle against an unwanted political regime. Those methods had nothing to do with justice and must not affect any people who just did their jobs.