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Debris from the MH17 crash
Image: DW/K. Logan

MH17 trial: What you need to know

Mikhail Bushuev
November 17, 2022

More than eight years since the downing of Malaysia Airlines Boeing flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine, the trial against the four main suspects has come to a close. DW gives you the basic facts of the case.

https://p.dw.com/p/3Z2ke

How Bellingcat investigated MH17 plane crash

On November 17, 2022, a Dutch court handed down its long-awaited verdictagainst three Russians and one Ukrainian accused of downing a Malaysia Airlines plane on July 17, 2014. 

The Hague-based District Court found three of the four main suspects guilty of murder for their role in shooting down flight MH17 over Ukraine which killed all 298 passengers and crew on board. 

The three men sentenced to life imprisonment in absentia were former Russian intelligence agents Igor Girkin and Sergey Dubinsky, along with Leonid Kharchenko, a Ukrainian separatist leader, who allegedly took orders directly from Dubinsky.

The fourth suspect, Oleg Pulatov, was acquitted on all charges due to lack of evidence. 

Malaysia Airlines: Flight MH17

The Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 flight MH17 took off from Schiphol Airport in the Netherlands and was flying to its destination of Kuala Lumpur when it crashed in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014. None of the passengers or crew on board the flight survived the crash.

An international team of investigators concluded the aircraft had been downed from the ground. To this day, no one has taken responsibility. Several countries called for an international tribunal to deal with the case.

It 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.

Infografik Karte MH17 EN

The trail leads to Russia

After the disaster, the five countries 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 had been hit by an anti-aircraft missile of the Soviet-era "BUK" type. This missile was allegedly launched from the part of Donbas 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 said, were based on accounts by eyewitnesses who said they saw the launch of the missile on remnants of the plane and the BUK missile that was found on satellite images and radar data, and on photos and videos showing the transport of the Russian missile system to the site in Donbas where it was used. There were also recordings of telephone calls between suspects, some of which were made public by the JIT.

Investigators: MH17 downed by Russian missile

The main accused

The international investigators  named four main suspects to be tried in abstentia. Three of them are Russian nationals: 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 named suspect was Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko (known as the "mole"). All denied their guilt prior to trial. Girkin, who at the time of the incident was one of the leading politicians in Donbas, remained in the public eye after withdrawing from the combat zone. In one interview, he said he felt a "moral responsibility" for the death of the MH17 passengers.

The investigators also suspected Volosdymyr Tsemakh, the ex-commander of a separatist anti-aircraft unit in Snizhne in eastern Ukraine, to have been involved. 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.

Reassembled cockpit of MH17
The plane was partially reassembled as part of investigationsImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/P. Dejong

None of the suspects appeared in the courtroom during the trial. Russia does not extradite its citizens, and the Ukrainian, Kharchenko, was possibly granted a Russian passport.

His fate and whereabouts remain unknown following his arrest in March 2020 in the Russian-controlled Ukrainian city of Donetsk. In Ukraine, there is reportedly a bounty of $100,000 (€96,820) for the capture of the suspected war criminal.

How Bellingcat investigated MH17 plane crash

The start of the trial and the main proceedings 

The initial trial began with procedural matters in The Hague on March 9, 2020. However, due to public interest, the hearings were moved to the Schiphol judicial complex, very close to the airport of the same name. The sessions, handled by judges from the court in The Hague, were broadcast live on the internet, as the verdict also was.

Though the dock remained empty, one of the defendants, Oleg Pulatov, was represented in court by his legal team. He let it be known via his lawyers that he was not responsible for the MH17 crash. However, recordings of telephone conversations between the defendants published in the Dutch media heavily incriminated him and others.  

The court subsequently found the defendants guilty. In the main trial, the prosecution presented ample evidence of their involvement in transporting the Russian BUK missile system to Ukraine and back to Russia, as well as in the use of the murder weapon.

The Kremlin denied any involvement in the downing of flight MH17, and in recent years had the help of state media to do so, spreading several contradictory versions of how the crash allegedly occurred. Russian propagandists have only partly later revised their claims, calling them "mistakes."

Netherlands memorial to the victims of the MH17 crash
The Netherlands has created a large memorial to the victims in VijfhuizenImage: Reuters/F. van Beek

Lawsuits at the European Court of Human Rights

The trial in Schipol — held in a courtroom near the Amsterdam airport from
where Flight MH17 took off for Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, was the largest, but not the only, legal action regarding the 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 Dutch government also brought the case before the ECHR in July 2020. The fact that Russia left the Council of Europe in March 2022, and is thus now outside the jurisdiction of the ECHR is irrelevant to proceedings already underway.

Furthermore, Australia and the Netherlands presented a joint complaint to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) against Russia in March 2022. The proceedings there are not public and are expected to continue for several years.

Four relatives of MH17 victims have also filed a suit at the ECHR against Ukraine. In their view, the Ukrainian government bears some of the blame for the deaths 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 kilometers — just a few hours before the MH17 catastrophe. This altitude is thought to be the maximum range for BUK missiles. The move is considered to be indirect evidence of Russian involvement.  

This article was updated on November 17, 2022, as the court ruling was handed down.

The article was originally written in German.

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