The District Court at the Hague, in the Netherlands, convicted two Russian men and a Ukrainian man in absentia of murder for their role in the shooting down of Flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014 with the tragic death of 298 passengers and crew, and handed them life sentences on November 17, 2022. The judgment also included a 16 million Euro damages award. Prosecutors had charged the four men with shooting down an airplane and with murder in a trial held under Dutch law, as more than half of the victims were Dutch.
Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 departed from Amsterdam and was bound for Kuala Lumpur when it was shot down over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014, in the Donetsk region in the territory of eastern Ukraine, during a Moscow-backed separatist uprising that foreshadowed Russia’s full-scale invasion of the country.
The ruling found that Russia had “overall control” over the forces of the Donetsk People’s Republic in Eastern Ukraine from mid May 2014, which is ground breaking. The judges did clearly highlight the Kremlin’s role in the crash — it armed separatists in eastern Ukraine and instigated their uprising — and emphasized Russia’s responsibility for the tragedy against the backdrop of the current war.
The court also found that an antiaircraft missile system provided to separatist forces by the Russian military brought down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, commonly known as MH17.
Presiding Judge Hendrik Steenhuis said that three men convicted were former Russian intelligence agents Igor Girkin and Sergey Dubinskiy, and Leonid Kharchenko, a Ukrainian separatist leader. The three were all found to have helped to arrange the transport into Ukraine of the Russian military BUK missile system that was used to shoot down the plane, though they were not the ones that physically pulled the trigger. They are fugitives and believed to be in Russia. A fourth former suspect, Russian Oleg Pulatov, was acquitted on all charges.
The court said there was “very convincing evidence” that the Buk missile had been deliberately fired from an agricultural field near Pervomaiskyi, a city in eastern Ukraine. Even if separatist forces had intended to shoot down a Ukrainian military aircraft and not an airliner, the court said, the strike was nevertheless premeditated and constituted a crime.
The prosecution also produced recordings of conversations on July 16 and 17, 2014, in which the suspects allegedly discussed the need for a Buk and determined the location to launch it. The conversations captured the suspects’ initial enthusiasm over the strike and how that changed when they realized that they had shot down a passenger flight.
The police investigation was led by the Netherlands, with participation from Ukraine, Malaysia, Australia and Belgium.
Ukraine welcomed the ruling, while Moscow called the ruling “scandalous” and said it would not extradite its citizens. The ruling came as a relief to victims’ family members, more than 200 of whom attended the court in person.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy hailed the first sentences handed down over MH17 as an “important decision” by the court in The Hague. “But it is necessary that those who ordered it also end up in the dock because the feeling of impunity leads to new crimes,” he wrote on Twitter. “We have to dispel this illusion. Punishment for all Russian atrocities – both then and now – will be inevitable.”
The ruling was “authoritative” and would likely boost Ukraine’s other international cases against Russia relating to the 2014 conflict.
‘NO REASONABLE DOUBT’
Judge Steenhuis said there was evidence from eyewitness testimony and photographs which tracked the missile system’s movements into and back out of Ukraine to Russia. “There is no reasonable doubt” that MH17 was shot down by a Russian missile system, Steenhuis said. Moscow denies any involvement or responsibility for MH17’s downing and in 2014 it also denied any presence in Ukraine.
In a statement, the Russian foreign ministry said “throughout the trial the court was under unprecedented pressure from Dutch politicians, prosecutors and the media to impose a politically motivated outcome”. “We deeply regret that the District Court in The Hague disregarded the principles of impartial justice in favour of the current political situation, thus causing a serious reputational blow to the entire judicial system in the Netherlands,” it added.
Phone call intercepts that formed a key part of the evidence suggested the men believed they were targeting a Ukrainian fighter jet. Presiding Judge, Steenhuis said that, while that counted for something in terms of lessening the severity of their criminal responsibility, they still had a murderous intent and the consequences of their actions were huge.
Of the suspects, only Pulatov had pleaded not guilty via lawyers he hired to represent him. The others were tried in absentia and none attended the trial.
The ruling is not the final word on holding people accountable for MH17, Dutch and Australian authorities said.
Andy Kraag, the head of the police investigation, said research was continuing into possible suspects higher in the chain of command. Investigators are also looking at the crew of the missile system which launched the fatal rocket.
The Dutch and Australian governments, which hold Russia responsible, have started a proceeding against the Russian Federation at the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).