Tuesday, January 25, 2022

U.S. Charges Belarusian Officials with Aircraft Piracy

The United States recently charged four Belarusian officials with conspiracy to commit aircraft piracy in connection with a fake bomb threat to Ryanair Flight 4978, which led to the grounding of the plane in Minsk on May 23 and the arrest of the journalist and government critic Roman Protasevich. U.S. prosecutors filed the charges  in federal court in New York.

Under U.S. law, 49 U.S.C. 46502, aircraft piracy is defined as "seizing or exercising control of an aircraft in the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States by force, violence, threat of force or violence, or any form of intimidation, and with wrongful intent." The Ryanair Flight is not within the "special aircraft jurisdiction" of the U.S. because it was not a U.S. aircraft and was not scheduled to land in the U.S. It was traveling between Greece and Lithuania when it was diverted. However, the United States claims jurisdiction over aircraft not within its special aircraft jurisdiction if U.S. nationals are on board the aircraft or if the offender is a U.S. national. In this case, news reports indicate there were four U.S. nationals on board Ryanair Flight 4978 along with approximately 130 other passengers. Whether the actions of the Belarusian officials amount to force, violence, or intimidation, rather than trickery, is open to debate.

49 U.S.C. 46502 is part of the U.S. implementation of the 1970 Convention for the Suppression of the Unlawful Seizure of Aircraft, to which both the U.S. and Belarus are parties. States party to that Convention have a duty to prosecute or extradite defendants. However, that Convention defines the offense as being committed by a person on board the aircraft. This limitation may present problems for the prosecution under the facts of this case were the U.S. to rely on that Convention.  There are other international conventions that also may apply, such as the Chicago and Montreal Conventions, if the U.S. chooses to look to international law. But it appears that the U.S. prosecutors have decided to keep it a bit simpler by bringing only a one-count indictment under U.S. law.

The four defendants currently remain in Belarus. If convicted, they could face 20 years in prison.



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