- Crash killed 298 passengers and crew
- Court finds Russian missile down plane
- Convicted men are refugees, believed to be in Russia
AMSTERDAM, Nov 17 (Reuters) – Dutch judges 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 loss of 298 passengers and crew, and give them life sentences.
Ukraine welcomed the ruling, which will have implications for other court cases Kyiv has filed against Russia, while Moscow called the ruling “outrageous” and said it would not extradite its citizens.
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, as fighting raged between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces, a precursor to this year’s conflict.
The verdict came as a relief to family members of the victims, more than 200 of whom attended the court in person, wiping away tears as the verdict was read.
“Only the most severe punishment is suitable to avenge what the suspects have done, which has caused so much suffering to so many victims and so many surviving relatives,” said the Presiding Judge Hendrik Steenhuis.
The three men found guilty were former Russian intelligence agents Igor Girkin and Sergey Dubinskiy, and Leonid Kharchenko, a separatist leader in Ukraine.
All three were found to have helped arrange the shipment of the Russian military’s BUK missile system used to shoot down the plane to Ukraine, although they were not the ones who physically pulled the trigger.
They are refugees and are believed to be in Russia. A fourth former suspect, Russian Oleg Pulatov, was acquitted of all charges.
The 2014 incident left the wreckage of the plane and the remains of victims scattered across fields of corn and sunflowers.
Russia invaded Ukraine in February and claims to have annexed Donetsk province where the plane was shot down.
“The families of victims wanted the truth and they wanted justice to be done and those responsible to be punished and that’s what happened. I’m quite satisfied,” said Piet Ploeg, who heads a foundation that representing victims, to Reuters. Ploeg’s brother, his brother’s wife and his nephew died on MH17.
Australian Meryn O’Brien, who lost her 25-year-old son Jack, said she felt relieved. “Everyone was pleased that the process was over, and it’s very fair, and it’s been precise.”
“There is no celebration,” said Jordan Withers from Britain, whose uncle Glenn Thomas died. “Nothing is going to bring any of the victims back.” They came from 10 different countries.
The verdict included a compensation award of 16 million euros.
The President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said that the first sentences given to MH17 were “an important decision” by the court in The Hague.
“But it is necessary that those who ordered it are also in the dock because the feeling of punishment leads to new crimes,” he wrote on Twitter. “We have to dispel this illusion. Punishment for all Russian atrocities – now and now – will be inevitable.”
The ruling found that Russia had “general control” over the forces of the Donetsk People’s Republic in Eastern Ukraine as of mid-May 2014.
“This is groundbreaking,” said Marieke de Hoon, assistant professor of international law at the University of Amsterdam. The ruling was “authoritative” and is likely to boost Ukraine’s other international cases against Russia related to the 2014 conflict.
‘NO REASONABLE DOUBT’
Judge Steenhuis said there was sufficient evidence from eyewitness testimony and photographs that tracked the movements of the missile system in and 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 the downing of MH17 and in 2014 it also denied any presence in Ukraine.
In a statement, the Russian foreign ministry said “throughout the case 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 has disregarded the principles of impartial justice in favor of the current political situation, causing a serious blow to the reputation of the entire judicial system in the Netherlands,” he added.
Prosecutors had charged the four men with shooting down a plane and with murder in a case conducted under Dutch law, as more than half of the victims were Dutch. Intercepted phone calls which were a key part of the evidence suggested the men believed they were targeting a Ukrainian fighter jet.
Steenhuis said that while that counts for something in terms of reducing the seriousness of their criminal responsibility, they still had murderous intent and the consequences of their actions were huge.
Of the suspects, only Pulatov pleaded not guilty through lawyers he hired to represent him. The others were tried in absentia and none of them attended the trial.
The police investigation was led by the Netherlands, with participation from Ukraine, Malaysia, Australia and Belgium.
Thursday’s ruling is not the final word on holding people accountable for MH17, Dutch and Australian authorities said.
Andy Kraag, head of police investigations, said searches were continuing for suspects higher up the chain of command. Investigators are also looking at the crew of the missile system that launched the fatal rocket.
The governments of the Netherlands and Australia, which hold Russia responsible, have initiated proceedings against the Russian Federation at the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).
Reporting by Toby Sterling, Stephanie van den Berg and Bart Meijer; Edited by Jon Boyle, Alex Richardson, Toby Chopra, Alexandra Hudson
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