A Tale of Two Flights
By Paul Blezard
There seems to be a contradiction, a huge chasm in fact, between how the international community responds to separate acts of aviation-based illegality. Here are two illustrations.
On the 23rd May 2021 Ryanair flight 4978, a Boeing 737, was diverted from its Athens to Vilnius flight plan and forced to land in Minsk, Belarus, escorted by a Belarusian Air Force MiG-29 fighter escort, supposedly due to a bomb threat that we now know was sham, a pretence.
Upon landing, 2 passengers, Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, were arrested and, at the time of writing, are still being detained by the Belarusian authorities, Protasevich for being listed on a Belarusian ‘wanted terrorist’ list, while no reasons or explanations have so far been given for Sapega’s continued detention.
These actions were conducted on the express orders of Belarusian President, Alexander Lukashenko, of whom Protasevich is a vocal critic.
Lukashenko has since been desperately trying to justify his actions, variously claiming threats of a bloody revolution, ill-wishers from inside the country and outside, bomb threats from Switzerland, threats from Palestinian militants Hamas and more.
A prisoner of Belarusian State Security Agency, the KGB, for the past month, Protasevich has been paraded under duress before the press on a number of occasions, forced to say that he has been treated well and to confess his guilt, despite having bruises on his face and wrists that would seem to indicate torture.
As the BBC’s Jonah Fisher has reported, Belarus seems to have a double — and contradictory — strategy, parading Protasevich and getting him to confess his crimes, while also claiming that the diversion of the plane, in what Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary has called ‘premeditated hijacking’, has nothing to do with him.
The response to this outrage was swift and comprehensive. The International Civil Aviation Organisation quickly expressed strong concerns, followed by Lithuania and the UK banning all flights to and from Belarus. The EU stopped all European airlines flying over Belarusian airspace and then banned Belarus airlines from flying in EU airspace.
Some nineteen different nations, let alone international bodies and organisations, have taken action or made formal protests against Belarus, variously calling the act “piracy in the skies,” “state-sponsored abduction” and “ a warlike act.’ Diplomats have been expelled; sanctions have and are being effected. Lukashenko and Belarus are in no doubt that the action is unacceptable and that there will be a price to pay. All this within three short weeks of the original act.
There have been countless expressions of outrage from presidents and prime ministers, blanket coverage in much of the world’s print and broadcast media, the incident has its own regularly updated Wikipedia page and the outpourings of shock and rage from the public have been vocal and visible.
On the 31st August 2020 Paul Rusesabagina, the world renowned hero and humanitarian who risked his own life in the worst days of the Rwandan genocide to save over 1200 people from certain death, an act dramatised in the film Hotel Rwanda, disembarked from a commercial flight he had taken from Dallas to Dubai to take a connecting flight to Bujumbura, Burundi in order to appear at a speaking engagement.
He boarded a private aircraft, chartered from Greek aviation company GainJet, at the invitation of a pastor he thought was a friend. He was then bound, gagged and, it is thought, drugged — with the collusion and possibly the assistance of the aircrew — while on board, and instead of arriving in Burundi found that he had been flown to Kigali airport, Rwanda.
Dragged from the plane, he vanished for three days before being paraded by Rwandan authorities in front of cameras and facing charges of terrorism, funding terrorism and a host of other spurious claims.
Despite early claims by Rwandan Justice Minister Johnston Busingye that Rusesabagina was not kidnapped, more recent video shows him laughing at how well the ‘operation’ went and his boss, current Rwandan President Paul Kagame, has repeatedly attempted to claim that Rusesabagina “led himself” to Rwanda and, in echoes of the Belarussian flight, equally revelled in the handling of Rusesabagina’s abduction as ‘flawless.”
We now know from Busingye himself that the flight was paid for by the Rwandan state and that GainJet is (now was) Kagame’s preferred private jet provider for his own private and Presidential flights.
This Wednesday, 23rd June, Paul Rusesabagina will have been imprisoned for 300 days since his abduction, 250 of them spent in solitary confinement in direct transgression of any and all human rights guidelines and agreements.
He has faced what his legal team describe as a “travesty of a trial” that has seen judges leading witnesses for the prosecution, witnesses reading heavily skewed statements prepared for them, a babe-in-arms being used in court to manipulate the media, even an actress being put on the stand to prop up the prosecution case with an over-emoting performance. The prosecution has nonetheless failed to provide any evidence at all linking Paul Rusesabagina to the charges levelled against him.
As with Protasevich and Lukashenko, Rusesabagina is a credible, passionate and much admired critic of Kagame, a president who has clung onto power for over two decades through voting manipulation, cronyism, a pattern of intra and extra-national surveillance, threats and in too many cases, murder.
As in Belarus, Rusesabagina, in the pink pyjamas of Rwandan prison garb, has been paraded before the media while Kagame has constantly spoken of his guilt, before and during the so-called trail, and in complete contravention of presumed innocence. Indeed the situation was, and remains, so appalling that Rusesabagina saw no option but to remove himself from the court proceedings.
The American Bar Association and the Clooney Foundation for Justice published a report last week (June 16th 2021) revealing so many failings in that trial, that there are no doubts that this is a sham, show-trial being held by a judiciary that does it’s master’s — Kagame’s — bidding, with not even a pretence of due process.
The key difference between flight one and flight two is the reaction to them.
Flight two was met with only limited international outcry. There has been no great clamouring for justice, let alone for the immediate release of Rusesabagina.
His family, supported by some extraordinary international human rights lawyers (and two very brave Rwandan lawyers who have been threatened and bullied but continue to so their jobs while fearing for their safety), have been able to marshal some support from the international press and media, but it has been hard work and slow-going.
That the family have in the past few weeks started to gain traction with resolutions from the US Congress, the European Parliament, the Belgian Government (finally) and more, is testament to their tenacity rather than an admirable reaction by governments and institutions to another act of aviation piracy.
That they do so while being themselves surveilled, having their electronics hacked by Rwandan Government agencies and being constantly defamed and abused by Rwandan Government funded trolls, makes their efforts all the more impressive. But then they are fighting for their father and husband, what else would they do? What else can they do?
The question is, why the rapid-response, effective international reaction to one case and not the other? For with Rusesabagina there has been only muted international engagement. Those nations that have taken an interest have largely done so with the bland diplomatic phrase “we are monitoring the situation.”
It is a bad situation that was instigated by and is being controlled and manipulated by a head of state that is known to be a vindictive, violent, paranoid bully, not even above physically striking cabinet members who displease him.
The truth may be this: that unlike Belarus and Lukashenko, many Western nations have invested too much money, political capital and aid in Rwanda and Kagame to now be seen to criticise him.
Kagame in turn, seems to act as if he is untouchable, that the need for Rwanda to be seen as a successful home for Western aid and investment, allows him to do what the hell he likes, as long as he can keep everyone eyes on the limited (and increasingly untrue) success story that he has crafted and publicises.
But beware. Cosying up to a despot and dictator has an appalling history and ends, as with Saddam Hussein and Mu’ammar Ghaddafi, in bloodshed, international embarrassment and leaves the nation in turmoil.
If the West does not stand up to Kagame now for such a worthy cause as Paul Rusesabagina, who really did stand up for others, then for whom and for what?
If we do not say that we will sanction and penalise those who break international norms of behaviour and the requirements of fair and functioning statehood, and then actually apply those sanctions and penalties, we will be sowing the seeds of an appalling, unacceptable and bloody future harvest.
It will then be reason, justice and credibility that will have taken flight.
1405 words © Paul Blezard 2021