A Dutch court has cleared one suspect and convicted three others in the downing of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 after a judge confirmed that the plane was shot down by a Russian-made missile in 2014.
Two former Russian intelligence officers and a Ukrainian stooge working for Putin were convicted of having a role in the aviation disaster, in which a Boeing 777 flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was blown out of the sky over Ukraine, killing all 289 passengers and crew members.
A third former Russian intelligence officer was acquitted in the long-awaited verdict.
The mid-air explosion and crash on July 17, 2014 happened amid a conflict between pro-Russian separatist and Ukrainian forces.
Presiding Judge Hendrik Steenhuis opened Thursday’s hearing and said the court’s view is that the MH17 was brought down by a Russian-made Buk missile launched from an agricultural field in eastern Ukraine.
In another important finding, Steenhuis said that the court believed that Russia had overall control at the time of a separatist region in eastern Ukraine, the Donetsk People’s Republic. The crash scattered wreckage and bodies over farmland and fields of sunflowers.
The judge said he would go on to rule on other legal issues and the guilt or innocence of the suspects later.
The suspects are former Russian intelligence officers Igor Girkin, Sergey Dubinskiy and Oleg Pulatov, as well as Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko, who has links to Russia.
Presiding Judge Hendrik Steenhuis (left) opened Thursday’s hearing and said the court’s view is that the MH17 was brought down by a Russian-made Buk missile launched from an agricultural field in eastern Ukraine
Wilbert Paulissen, national Police chief of the Netherlands, announces murder charges against three Russians and one Ukrainian over the shoot-down of MH17
Piet Ploeg, who lost his brother, his sister-in-law and his nephew in the downing of MH17, spokes person for the relatives of the victims smiles (centre right wearing green tie) before the verdict session of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 trial at the high security court at Schiphol airport, near Amsterdam, Netherlands on Thursday
Lawyers attend the judges’ inspection of the reconstruction of the MH17 wreckage, as part of the murder trial ahead of the beginning of a critical stage, in Reijen, Netherlands, in May 2021
People inspect the crash site of a passenger plane near the village of Hrabove, Russian-controlled Donetsk region of Ukraine in July 2014
The courtroom was packed with relatives of the 298 victims of the aviation disaster, and ahead of the hearing, tension was high among those who had lost their loved ones.
‘The truth on the table – that is the most important thing,’ said Anton Kotte, who lost his son, daughter-in-law and his 6-year-old grandson when the MH17 was shot down. He said the hearing was a ‘D-Day’ for relatives.
Robbert van Heijningen, who lost his brother, sister-in-law and nephew, called the downing ‘an act of barbarism’ that he could never put behind him, regardless of the verdict.
‘I call it a stone in my heart, and stones… don’t disappear,’ he said.
None of the suspects appeared for the trial that began in March 2020 and if they are convicted, it’s unlikely they will serve any sentence anytime soon. Prosecutors have sought life sentences for all four. Prosecutors and the suspects have two weeks to file an appeal.
Prosecutors say the suspects, three former Russian intelligence officers and a Ukrainian stooge working for Vladimir Putin, helped arrange and transport a Russian army BUK missile system into Ukraine that was used to shoot down the plane.
Phone call intercepts that formed a key part of the evidence against the men suggested they believed they were targeting a Ukrainian fighter jet.
The Hague District Court, sitting at a high-security courtroom at Schiphol Airport, is passing judgment against a backdrop of global geopolitical upheaval caused by Russia’s full-blown invasion of Ukraine in February and the nearly nine-month war it triggered.
Investigators work at a the crash site of the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 near the village of Hrabove (Grabovo), some 80km east of Donetsk, on July 25, 2014
Australian and Dutch investigators examine a piece of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 plane, near the village of Hrabove, Russian-controlled Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine on August 1, 2014
Hundreds of family members of people killed travelled to the court to hear the verdict, bringing them back to the airport their loved ones left on the fateful day MH17 was shot down. Outside the court, planes could be heard taking off and landing nearby on a cold, gray day.
Dutch prosecutors say the missile launcher came from the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade, a unit of the Russian armed forces based in the Russian city of Kursk and was driven back there after MH17 was shot down.
The suspects aren’t accused of firing the missile but of working together to get it to the field where it was fired. They are accused of bringing down the plane and the murder of all those on board.
The most senior defendant is Igor Girkin, a 51-year-old former colonel in Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB. At the time of the downing, he was defence minister and commander of the armed forces of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic – the region where the plane was shot down. Girkin reportedly is currently involved in Russia’s war on Ukraine.
Also on trial are Girkin’s subordinates, Sergey Dubinskiy, Oleg Pulatov, and Leonid Kharchenko, a Ukrainian who prosecutors say was commander of a pro-Russia rebel combat unit and took orders directly from Dubinskiy.
Pulatov is the only one of the suspects who was represented by defense lawyers at the trial. They accused prosecutors of ‘tunnel vision’ in basing their case on the findings of an international investigation into the downing while ignoring other possible causes.
Pulatov’s defense team also sought to discredit evidence and argued he didn’t get a fair trial.
In a video recording played in court, Pulatov insisted he was innocent and told judges: ‘What matters to me is that the truth is revealed. It’s important for me that my country is not blamed for this tragedy.’
Moscow denies any involvement or responsibility for MH17’s downing and in 2014 it also denied any presence in Ukraine. In a briefing in Moscow on Thursday, Deputy Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ivan Nechaev told reporters the government would examine the court’s findings.