Dutchman Piet Ploeg lost his older brother Alex when Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down over Eastern Ukraine seven years ago.
Alex was on the plane headed from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, which was hit by a Russian Buk missile while flying over the Donbas.
Ploeg never had the chance to say goodbye. All 298 people on the plane were killed in the attack. His brother was one of the two people whose remains were never found.
“You know, my parents both died in 2019 and it was very sad that they never got to say goodbye to their son,” Ploeg, who also lost his broth- er’s wife and a nephew in the plane crash, told the Kyiv Post. “My mother often dreamed that her son was still alive somewhere. You wouldn’t wish such sad last years of your life on your worst enemy.”
The Netherlands Forensic Institute is still examining the last bone fragments of the victims and is expected to have results this summer. Ploeg has little hope that his brother will be found.
“So far, nothing has been found and, to be honest, I don’t expect anything,” he said.
While he has almost come to terms with not being able to bury his brother, he believes the least he can do is to get justice for him.
Ploeg, the director of Vliegramp MH17, a foundation representing the majority of those who lost loved ones in the MH17 crash, has been proactive in trying to hold responsible parties to account. Ploeg and 400 other relatives of the victims brought a case against Russia to the European Court of Human Rights in 2016.
“We want Russia to admit to having been involved in the downing of flight MH17. We want Russia to apologize to all the relatives and the governments of the victim countries. And we want Russia to contribute, in one way or another, to the reparation of the suffering caused to the victims and their families,” he said.
However, it is not only Russia who must take responsibility, Ploeg believes. In his view, Ukraine should share the blame.
“After all, if the airspace had been closed, this tragedy would not have happened,” he told the Kyiv Post.
There were sufficient reasons for Ukraine to close the airspace above its eastern regions because of the fighting there, according to the Dutch Safety Board that investigated the MH17 crash.
Kremlin-backed forces had previously shot down Ukraine’s military aircraft. With that in mind, Ukraine’s government had a duty to warn other countries’ civil aviation about
the risks of flying over the area, said Marieke de Hoon, assistant professor of international criminal law at Amsterdam’s Free University.
“It has failed in its obligation to close its airspace, which is a violation of international law,” de Hoon, who has been following the MH17 trial closely, told the Kyiv Post.
However, Russia’s guilt greatly outweighs Ukraine’s, which is why the Netherlands government is focused on holding Russia accountable, she said.
“Russia was actually involved in delivering this missile and in actually downing it and, of course, everything that followed,” de Hoon said.
According to the law professor, the relatives of the victims are frustrated that no one has taken responsibility for the crash.
Russia denies any involvement despite the ample evidence and has called the investigation politically motivated.
Ukraine actively participates in the Netherlands-led investigation, which also includes Australia, Belgium and Malaysia. But de Hoon believes that this is not enough and Ukraine should stand up and take responsibility.
She wants the Ukrainian government to admit it made a mistake by not closing the airspace.
“Then you do not need to go to court (to sue Ukraine) and everyone would prefer that,” de Hoon said.
Holding Russia accountable
Ever since investigations by journalists and law enforcement connected Russia to the downing of the Malaysian plane, numerous lawsuits have been filed against the Kremlin.
Over 400 relatives of the victims filed a complaint against Russia to the European Court of Human Rights in 2016. It was followed by the Dutch government’s interstate claim against Russia in 2020. The Netherlands is accusing Russia of downing the plane and failing to collaborate with investigators as required by international obligations. The hearings have yet to start.
As of now, the central trial is taking place in a Dutch court. It started in March 2020 and is set to decide whether three Russian nationals and one Ukrainian are responsible for shooting down the plane. According to the joint investigation team, their names are Igor Girkin, Sergei Dubinsky, Leonid Kharchenko and Oleg Pulatov.
Only one of the four defendants is participating in the trial through his lawyers. The rest are being tried in absentia. Multiple pieces of evidence, including geolocation, phone recordings and witness testimonies point to their responsibility.
If found guilty, they may be sentenced to life in prison. Carrying out the sentence may be problematic as all four are allegedly hiding in Russia.
“As long as the Russian authorities… protect them they are protected,” de Hoon said. “There is nothing that the Dutch police can do on Russian soil,” she added. There are no international agreements that could help and Russia has veto power in the UN Security Council.
The court may also rule that the four have to pay millions of euros to the victims’ families. Depending on how close their ties were, they get from 40,000 to 50,000 euros per person, according to de Hoon.
If the court awards compensation, the Dutch government will pay the victims’ families, and then will try to retrieve the sum from the defendants.
In June, the court is set to start hearing the case on the merits. The judges are expected to announce their decision next year.
Ukraine is continuing its own criminal investigation into the MH17 crash and has charged the four suspects separately in 2019, according to the Prosecutor General’s Office.
What the Dutch think
People in the Netherlands generally believe that it was Russian- sponsored militants who destroyed the plane — but not always.
Russia has denied involvement, spun numerous versions of what happened and kept accusing Ukraine.
In 2016, pro-Russian groups start- ed spreading conspiracy theories that Ukraine shot down the plane. At one point, they printed the message “Wasn’t MH17 shot down from Ukraine?” on rolls of toilet paper and distributed them in Amsterdam.
Spreading anti-Ukrainian messages was an attempt to convince the public to vote against Ukraine at the then-upcoming referendum on an association agreement between the European Union and Ukraine, which the Netherlands held in 2016.
“It was astonishingly filled with lies,” said Ruud Meij, a philosopher and an active supporter of Ukraine during the referendum.
The Dutch voted against Ukraine, but only a third of the electorate showed up to the polls.
According to Meij, some people bought the misinformation.
“This referendum definitely harmed the reputation of Ukraine because so much fake news was spread. It was a really fraudulent referendum,” said Meij.
Marc Jansen, an expert on Russia and Ukraine and a research fellow in East European Studies at the University of Amsterdam, believes that people who question the official MH17 investigation are a small group.
“With respect to people doubting the JIT conclusions, a lot of them are populists, who think the Dutch public shouldn’t interfere in the Russian- Ukrainian relations,” Jansen told the Kyiv Post.
Ploeg, who lost three family members in the MH17 plane crash, wants Russia to stop “obstructing the criminal process and putting out false information.”