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MH17 trial: 3 suspects convicted over role in 2014 crash

November 17, 2022

A Dutch court has delivered its long-awaited verdict over the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17. The plane was blown out of the sky in July 2014 over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board.

Members of the a Dutch court observe the reconstruction of crashed flight MH17 as part of a trial in May 2021
The downed plane was partly reconstructed from the rubble, and in May 2021, members of the court and legal teams inspected the wreckage Image: Sem van der Wal/ANP/picture alliance

A Dutch court on Thursday found three of the four main suspects in the MH17 trial guilty of murder for taking part in the 2014 downing of Malaysian Airlines flight. 

All three were sentenced to life in prison in absentia. The fourth suspect was acquitted.

Family members of people killed in the disaster gathered to hear the verdict at the high-security courtroom at Schiphol Airport where The Hague District Court sat.  

The ruling is also taking place amid a tense geopolitical backdrop of Russia's full-on invasion of Ukraine, which has resulted in nine-months of war.

None of the four suspects on trial were present for the proceedings, as they had not been arrested and were being tried in their absence. This means they are unlikely to serve any time in prison.

What did the court rule?

Two of the convicted are Russian, including Igor Girkin, the former "defense minister" of the self-declared "People's Republic of Donetsk." The 51-year-old is a former colonel in Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), and is reportedly involved in Russia's current war in Ukraine.

The second Russian convicted was one of Girkin's subordinates, Major General Sergey Dubinsky.

The third person convicted is Ukrainian national Leonid Kharchenko, who allegedly led a pro-Russian rebel combat unit and took orders directly from Dubinsky.

Girkin, Dubinsky and Kharchenko were subsequently sentenced to life in prison. The men remain fugitives and are believed to be in Russia, which is unlikely to extradite them.

"Only the most severe punishment is fitting to retaliate for what the suspects have done, which has caused so much suffering to so many victims and so many surviving relatives," Presiding Judge Hendrik Steenhuis said.

Presiding judge Hendrik Steenhuis speaks during the verdict session of the MH17 trial at the high security court at Schiphol Airport
Presiding judge Hendrik Steenhuis said the charges were 'so severe' that life imprisonment would be the only 'appropriate' sentenceImage: Phil Nijhuis/AP/picture alliance

All three have also been ordered to pay at least €16 million ($16.5 million) to the relatives of the victims.

The fourth suspect, Russian national Oleg Pulatov, was acquitted due to a lack of evidence.

In another significant development, the judges ruled that MH17 crashed due to being hit by a Russian-made missile that was fired from a field in eastern Ukraine. The ruling confirms the findings by international investigators.

The judges further found that Russia had "control" over separatists in eastern Ukraine in 2014.

Piet Ploeg, relative of three MH17 victims, speaks to DW

How did relatives react?

Piter Ploeg, spokesman for the families of the victims of the tragedy, told DW that "every 68 session days, we have waited eight years for the verdict. For me and everybody else, it is very important."

On the Russian suspect who was acquitted due to lack of evidence, Ploeg says they "have to deal with it." "Of course, its annoying," he adds.

"The trial is important internationally because the world gets to know what the role of Russia was in the downing of MH17," he said.

"It would be the best solution to have an international tribunal, but that was not possible. The Dutch government took the initiative," Ploeg said. 

How have Russia and Ukraine reacted?

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy praised the Dutch court decision as "important," but said that "the masterminds" who ordered the missile attack should also face trial.

Russia acknowledged the proceedings, with deputy head of the Foreign Ministry communications department telling reporters that Moscow would examine the court's findings.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said after the verdict that it "deeply" regrets that the court "neglected principles of impartiality on MH17 case."

Russian state-run news agency Tass quoted a senior Russian legislator as saying that Russia "would not extradite citizens in absentia to the Netherlands."

What happened to flight MH17?

On July 17, 2014, Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 set off from Amsterdam en route to Kuala Lumpur.

The Boeing 777 plane then crashed in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, amid a conflict between pro-Russia rebels and Ukrainian forces. All of the 298 people on board were killed.

A map showing the flight path of MH17 before contact was lost on July 17, 2014
Contact with flight MH17 was lost on July 17, 2014 over an area of eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian separatists

An international team of investigators — the so-called Joint Investigation Team (JIT) — concluded that the aircraft was hit by an anti-aircraft missile of the Soviet-era "BUK" type.

The investigation team said the missile was launched from an area of Donbas controlled by pro-Russian rebels. The missile system had been transported to the area from Russia and was taken back over the border shortly after the disaster.

The Netherlands launched a trial in March 2020 according to its own national laws after efforts failed to launch an international tribunal to deal with the case. The majority of the victims, 193 altogether, came from the Netherlands.

What were the suspects accused of?

Girkin, Dubinsky, Kharchenko and Pulatov were not accused of firing the missile themselves, but of working together to get the missile launcher to the field where it was fired.

Phone call intercepts were some of the key pieces of evidence examined in the case against the men. The calls suggested they believed they were targeting a Ukrainian fighter jet instead of a passenger plane.

All four have denied their guilt. Girkin, who at the time was one of the leading politicians in Donbas, remained in the public eye after withdrawing from the combat zone. In one interview, he said that he felt a "moral responsibility" for the death of the passengers.

None of the accused have been present for the proceedings. Prosecutors and suspects have two weeks to file an appeal against the Dutch ruling.

rs/fb (AFP, AP, Reuters)