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MH17 trial: What you need to know

The trial for the case of the Boeing 777 shot down over eastern Ukraine in 2014 has started in Amsterdam. DW gives you the basic facts of the case.

Watch video 01:47

Trial over MH17 crash in Ukraine to begin in Netherlands

The disaster happened on July 17, 2014. The Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777, Flight MH17, had taken off from Schiphol Airport in the Netherlands and was flying to its destination of Kuala Lumpur when it crashed in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine. None of the 298 people on board survived.

To this day, no one has taken responsibility for the suspected deliberate downing of the aircraft. Several countries, including the Netherlands and Australia, have called for an international tribunal to deal with the MH17 case.

Read more: Flight MH17 families seek answers as suspects face trial in absentia

The Judicial Complex Schiphol (AFP/R. de Waal)

The trial is being held in the Judicial Complex Schiphol

No UN tribunal

But the case did not make it to a UN court because Russia blocked the initiative with its right of veto on the UN Security Council. The Dutch government then decided to run the trial according to its own national laws, as most of the victims (193 altogether) came from the Netherlands.

The judges at the appropriate court in The Hague took on the MH17 case. The large public interest meant that the hearings themselves are taking place in the court complex of Schiphol, in close proximity to the airport near Amsterdam from where the plane took off. The sessions will also be broadcast live on the internet.

Reassembled cockpit of MH17 (picture-alliance/AP Photo/P. Dejong)

The plane was partially reassembled as part of investigations

Results of the JIT team's investigations

After the disaster, the five countries that were most affected by it — Australia, Belgium, the Netherlands, Malaysia and Ukraine — formed the so-called Joint Investigation Team (JIT).

The investigators concluded that the Boeing 777 was hit by an anti-aircraft missile of the Soviet-era "BUK" type. This missile was allegedly launched from the part of Donbass that is controlled by pro-Russian separatists. The BUK missile system had been transported there from Russia and was taken back over the border shortly afterward, according to the JIT investigators.

These findings, the JIT says, are based on accounts by eyewitnesses who say they saw the launch of the missile, on remnants of the plane and the BUK missile that were found, on satellite images and radar data, and on photos and videos showing the transport of the Russian missile system to the site in Donbass where it was used. There are also recordings of telephone calls between suspects, some of which have been made public by the JIT. Ahead of the start of the trial, the Dutch chief investigator, Fred Westerbeke, voiced his conviction that Russia's involvement in the tragedy is proven.

Watch video 01:56

Investigators: MH17 downed by Russian missile

The main accused

The international investigators have named four main suspects so far. Three of them are Russians: Igor Girkin (nicknamed "Strelkov"), the former "defense minister" of the self-declared "People's Republic of Donetsk," Major General Sergey Dubinsky (nicknamed "the gloomy one") and Colonel Oleg Pulatov ("Levant viper"). The fourth suspect is the Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko ("mole"). They deny any involvement.

The investigators also suspect Volosdymyr Tsemakh, the ex-commander of a separatist anti-aircraft unit in Snizhne in eastern Ukraine. The JIT has explicitly not ruled out issuing further charges, but so far none have been brought against Tsemakh or anyone else. Other suspects could include the unnamed members of the crew manning the BUK missile system and the captain of the Russian 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade, who commanded the crew.

So fafr, none of the suspects have appeared in the courtroom. Russia does not extradite its citizens, and the Ukrainian Kharchenko has possibly gained a Russian passport. If the accused were prepared to testify, however, they may do so via video link.

A politically delicate aspect of the trial is that a high-ranking Russian government official, Vladislav Surkov, an adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin who recently stepped down, is one focus of the investigations. Surkov is seen as the unofficial driver of the Kremlin's course on Ukraine. In 2019, the JIT made public numerous intercepted phone calls that in the view of the investigators are connected with the MH17 downing. One of the people whose conversations were intercepted and made public is Surkov.

Watch video 04:16

How Bellingcat investigated MH17 plane crash

Russia's attitude to the MH17

The shooting down of a civilian aircraft in connection with escalating clashes in eastern Ukraine led, in the summer of 2014, to harsher US and EU sanctions against Russia. The suspicion of Russian involvement in the MH17 disaster was quick in coming: In the first minutes after the downing of the plane, the Kremlin-backed separatists celebrated a putative "success." They thought they had shot down a Ukrainian military aircraft.

The day after the suspected deliberate shooting down of the plane, Putin blamed on Ukraine. If Kyiv had shut down its own airspace, the tragedy would not have occurred, Putin said. To this day, Russian authorities deny any involvement in the MH17 catastrophe. However, the stance and the information policy of the Kremlin regarding the affair has changed over the years.

At first, state-run Russian media aired several contradictory versions to explain the crash: In November 2014, Russian state television showed "sensational" footage of a fighter plane near the MH17 aircraft. But radar data showed no plane there that could have shot down the Boeing.

In an interview for the US New Yorker magazine, the director of one of the major Russian TV channels, Konstantin Ernst, admitted that it had "made a mistake." Later, the manufacturer of the BUK system, the Russian company Almas-Antei, claimed to have carried out its own investigations. According to these, the missile was launched from a location controlled by Kyiv. Moscow does not accept the JIT's conclusions.

But in February 2020, it emerged that Russia had been in touch with the Dutch government to offer to try the three Russian suspects in a Russian court. Reuters reported that Dutch authorities had rejected the offer, citing a letter by Justice Minister Ferd Grapperhaus to the parliament.

Netherlands memorial to the victims of the MH17 crash (Reuters/F. van Beek)

The Netherlands has created a large memorial to the victims in Vijfhuizen

Lawsuits at the European Court of Human Rights

The trial in Amsterdam is the largest, but not the only, legal action regarding the MH17 case. Two class action lawsuits have been filed with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in the name of 380 relatives of victims of the MH17 crash. The plaintiffs accuse Russia of having violated the victims' right to life.

One of these suits was prepared by US advocate Jerry Skinner, who made a name for himself in the Lockerbie trial. The plaintiffs are demanding compensation from Russia of at least €6.4 million ($7.2 million) per deceased passenger. The ECHR called upon Russia to make a statement responding to the charges, which it did on January 2, 2020, though its contents were not made public.

Four relatives of MH17 victims have filed a suit at the ECHR against Ukraine. In their view, the Ukrainian government bears some of the blame for the death of the passengers, as they had not completely closed off airspace over the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine.

Airspace in the region on the day of the tragedy was indeed closed only to an altitude of 8,000 meters (26,247 feet). Russia unilaterally imposed a flight ban in the region bordering on Ukraine up to an altitude of 16 km — just a few hours before the MH17 catastrophe. This altitude is considered the maximum range for BUK missiles.

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