The government of Aleksandr Lukashenko claims someone called a bomb threat on the flight, although the charade was used to arrest opposition journalist Roman Protasevich
Sleight Detour to Minsk
Belarus has been accused of state-sponsored terrorism after it forced Ryanair flight 4978 to land Sunday in order to arrest a journalist on board.
Belarus; however, tells the story differently.
According to its Interior Ministry, a bomb threat was called in about the flight from Greece to Lithuania. While over Belarusian airspace, the flight got a call from air traffic control saying that it had to land in Minsk. Reportedly, President Aleksandr Lukashenko personally ordered a MiG-29 fighter plane to escort the flight all the way.
After landing, no bombs were found on the plane, but Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich was on board. Protasevich is a co-founder of the NEXTA telegram channel, which is one of the few remaining free-press outlets remaining in Belarus following a severe crackdown on the press in 2020. When he realized the plane was being forced to land, France24 reports that Protasevich told other passengers that “he was facing the death penalty.”
After seven hours on the tarmac, the plane took off again to Lithuania with everyone but Protasevich on board. Belarus maintains that the plane was not forced to land because Protasevich was on board, and the country’s top investigative body claims it’s taking the false-bomb report very seriously by vowing to investigate who made the outrageous threat.
Few believe the bomb threat story, finding it too convenient that the flight just so happened to be the flight of one of Lukashenko’s biggest critics onboard.
When his arrest became known, NEXTA’s leadership removed all of Protasevich’s NEXTA Telegram privileges to ensure the safety of its 250,000 members.
Around the world, leaders condemned the act. Speaking about the incident, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “We strongly condemn the Lukashenko regime’s brazen and shocking act to divert a commercial flight and arrest a journalist. We demand an international investigation and are coordinating with our partners on next steps.”
The European Commission, the European Union’s executive body, called the incident “utterly unacceptable.” While individual European states were more forceful. The Greek Foreign Ministry called Belarus’ actions a “state hijacking,” while Poland’s Prime Minister called it an “act of state terrorism.” Germany and France also added to the criticism, with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas remarking, “such an act cannot remain without clear consequences.”
Still, it’s unclear what those consequences can be. Belarus is not part of the E.U., meaning the bloc can’t impose internal restrictions. For international pressure, Belarus’ top leaders and institutions are already under crippling sanctions over how it cracked down on opposition figures in a hotly contested presidential election last year.
Some of the most critical reactions came from the Baltic countries, with Lithuania’s President demanding that Belarus’ airspace be declared unsafe and the Belarusian aircraft not be accepted at E.U. airports.
However, in places like Russia, Lukashenko’s actions were met with praise. Margarita Simonyan, editor of the RT propaganda television network, said the Belarusian president “played it beautifully.”
While countries decide what to do, some airlines have already taken matters into their own hands. Some carriers, like airBaltic, told its captains to “avoid entering Belarus airspace until the situation becomes clearer or a decision is issued by the authorities.” Carriers like Wizz air have made similar plans until more guidance is given.
For its part, Ryanair said it won’t reroute flights over Belarus until more guidance from the E.U. comes, but its CEO did note that the carrier has very few flights over Belarus anyways.
See what others are saying: (Washington Post) (CNN) (The Guardian)
U.K. Court Rules Julian Assange Can Be Extradited to U.S.
The judgment overrules a lower court decision that blocked the WikiLeaks founder’s extradition on the grounds that his mental health was not stable enough to weather harsh conditions in the American prison system if convicted.
New Developments in Assange Extradition Battle
A British court ruled Friday that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange can be extradited to the United States to face charges of violating the Espionage Act that could land him in prison for decades.
Prosecutors in the U.S. have accused Assange of conspiring with former army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning in 2010 to hack into a Department of Defense computer network and access thousands of military and diplomatic records on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The information obtained in the hack was later published by WikiLeaks in 2010 and 2011, a move U.S. authorities allege put lives in danger.
In addition to a charge of computer misuse, Assange has also been indicted on 17 espionage charges. Collectively, the charges carry a maximum prison sentence of 175 years.
The Friday decision from the High Court overturns a lower court ruling in January, which found that Assange’s mental health was too fragile for the harsh environment he could face in the U.S. prison system if convicted.
Notably, the January ruling did not determine whether or not Assange was guilty. In fact, District Judge Vanessa Baraitser explicitly rejected the defense’s arguments that the charges against him were politically motivated and that he should be protected under freedom of press.
However, she agreed that the defense had provided compelling evidence that Assange suffers from severe depression and that the conditions he could face in the U.S. prison system were “such that it would be oppressive to extradite him to the United States of America.”
The U.S. appealed the ruling, arguing that Assange’s mental health should not be a barrier to extradition and that the psychiatrist who examined him had been biased.
In October, the Biden administration vowed that if Assange were to be convicted, he would not be placed in the highest-security U.S. prison or immediately sent to solitary confinement. Officials also said that the native Australian would be eligible to serve his sentence in his home country.
High Court Ruling
The High Court agreed with the administration’s arguments in its ruling, arguing that the American’s assurances regarding the conditions of Assange’s potential incarceration were “sufficient.”
“There is no reason why this court should not accept the assurances as meaning what they say,” the ruling stated. “There is no basis for assuming that the USA has not given the assurances in good faith.”
Assange’s fiancé, Stella Moris, said in a statement that his legal team would appeal the decision to the British Supreme Court at the “earliest possible moment,” referring to the judgment as a “grave miscarriage of justice.”
The Supreme Court will now decide whether or not to hear the case based on if it believes the matter involves a point of law “of general public importance.” That decision may take weeks or even months.
If the U.K. Supreme Court court objects to hearing Assange’s appeal, he could ask the European Court of Human Rights to stay the extradition — a move that could set in motion another lengthy legal battle in the already drawn-out process.
Assange and his supporters claim he was acting as an investigative journalist when he published the classified military cables. They argue that the possibility of his extradition and prosecution represent serious threats to press freedoms in the U.S.
U.S. prosecutors dispute that Assange acted as a journalist, claiming that he encouraged illegal hacking for personal reasons.
See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (NPR) (The Washington Post)
Early Data Indicates Omicron is More Transmissible But Less Severe
The studies come as Pfizer and BioNTech claim that preliminary research shows a third shot of their COVID vaccine appears to provide sufficient protection against the new variant, but two doses alone may not.
More Information About Omicron
Several preliminary studies published in recent days appear to show that the new omicron COVID-19 variant may be more transmissible but less severe than previous strains.
One recent, un-peer-reviewed study by a Japanese scientist who advises the country’s health ministry found that omicron is four times more transmissible in its initial stage than delta was.
Preliminary information in countries hit hard by omicron also indicates high transmissibility. In South Africa — where the variant was first detected and is already the dominant strain — new COVID cases have more than doubled over the last week.
Health officials in the U.K. said omicron cases are doubling every two or three days, and they expect the strain to become dominant in the country in a matter of weeks.
In a statement Wednesday, World Health Organization Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that while early data does seem to show high transmissibility, it also indicates that omicron causes more mild cases than delta.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevent Director Rochelle Walensky echoed that sentiment, telling reporters that of the 40 known omicron cases in the U.S. as of Wednesday, nearly all of them were mild. One person has been hospitalized so far and none have died.
Studies on Vaccine Efficacy
Other recent studies have shown that current COVID vaccines are effective at preventing severe illness and death in omicron patients, and boosters provide at least some added protection.
On Wednesday, Pfizer and BioNTech announced that laboratory tests have shown a third dose of their COVID-19 vaccine appears to provide sufficient protection against the omicron variant, though two doses may not.
According to the companies, researchers saw a 25-fold reduction in neutralizing antibodies for omicron compared to other strains of the virus for people who had just two Pfizer doses.
By contrast, samples from people one month after they had received a Pfizer booster presented neutralizing antibodies against omicron that were comparable to those seen against previous variants after two doses.
Still, Pfizer’s chief executive also told reporters later in the day that omicron could increase the likelihood that people might need a fourth dose earlier than previously expected, which he had initially said was 12 months after the third shot.
Notably, the Pfizer research has not yet been peer-reviewed, and it remains unclear how omicron will operate outside a lab, but other studies have had similar findings.
See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (Bloomberg) (NBC News)
40 Camels Disqualified From Beauty Contest After Breeders Inject Their Faces With Botox
The animals were barred from competing for $66 million in prizes at this year’s King Abdulaziz Camel Festival in Saudi Arabia.
Camels Booted From Beauty Contest
More than 40 camels were disqualified from a beauty contest in Saudi Arabia this week after judges found artificial enhancements in their faces, marking the biggest crackdown on contestants in the competition to date.
The animals were competing for $66 million in prizes at the King Abdulaziz Camel Festival, a month-long event that is estimated to include around 33,000 camels.
However, according to The Guardian, they were forced out of the contest when authorities found that breeders had “stretched out the lips and noses of the camels, used hormones to boost the animals’ muscles, injected heads and lips with Botox to make them bigger, inflated body parts with rubber bands, and used fillers to relax their faces.”
Those types of alterations are banned since judges look at the contestant’s heads, necks, humps, posture, and other features when evaluating them.
An announcement from the state-linked Saudi Press Agency said officials used “specialized and advanced” technology to detect tampering.
“The club is keen to halt all acts of tampering and deception in the beautification of camels,” the SPA report added before warning that organizers would “impose strict penalties on manipulators.”
While it’s unclear what that actually entails, this isn’t the first time people have tried to cheat in this way.
In 2018, 12 camels were similarly disqualified from the competition for injections in their noses, lips, and jaw.