Two Russians and one Ukrainian man found guilty of murdering the 298 passengers and crew members of Malaysia airlines flight
By Roland Oliphant, SENIOR FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT 17 November 2022
Volodymyr Zelensky vowed that all Russian war crimes would be punished after a Dutch court sentenced three men to life in prison for shooting down a civilian airliner in 2014.
Two Russians and one Ukrainian man were found guilty of murdering the 298 passengers and crew members of Malaysia airlines flight MH17 in the Hague on Tuesday.
A fourth Russian man was acquitted following an eight-year quest for justice over one of the bloodiest incidents of Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine eight years ago.
Relatives welcomed the verdict but said more had to be done to bring others involved to justice.
The verdict was read out in front of a court room packed with relatives of the nearly 300 victims killed in the incident.
Judge Hendrik Steenhuis told the court: “The court calls the proven charges so severe that it holds that only the highest possible prison sentence would be appropriate.
“Imposing these sentences cannot take away the pain and suffering, but there’s hope that today clarity has been provided about who is to blame.”
The three were also ordered to pay at least 16 million euros in compensation to the victims’ families.
None of the accused were in court and Russia has refused to extradite them, meaning they are unlikely to be detained or imprisoned unless they travel abroad.
The case was heard in a Dutch court because Russia vetoed creation of an international tribunal at the United Nations.
Nearly 300 people from 10 countries, including 10 Britons, were among the victims.
Russia’s Igor “Strelkov” Girkin, and Sergei Dubinsky, and Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko, were found guilty on charges of murder and causing the crash of the aircraft.
Dubinsky, who has been linked to the Russian intelligence services, ordered Kharchenko to escort and guard the Russian BUK air defence system to the spot where it fired the fatal missile on July 17, 2014, the court found.
Girkin, a former officer in Russia’s FSB security service and the top separatist military commander in east Ukraine at the time, was found to have had “control over the use and deployment” of the launcher. He is now believed to be in Ukraine, fighting on the Russian side despite harshly criticising the Kremlin’s handling of the war.
Oleg Pulatov, the only defendant to appoint defence counsel, was acquitted. Judges said he was fighting in the area but there was no evidence he contributed to the missile launch or had the authority to stop it.
From top to bottom: Russia’s Igor Girkin (Strelkov), Sergei Dubinsky and Oleg Pulatov, and Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko CREDIT: JOHN THYS /AFP
All three convicted men held senior positions in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, a nominally “separatist” but in reality Russian-controlled entity that was fighting a war of secession with the Ukrainian government. They are unlikely to ever spend time in jail unless Russia extradites them or they travel abroad.
The court said there was not enough evidence to say who had given the order to fire and acknowledged that many people involved, including the crew of the BUK, were still at large.
The launcher had been identified as coming from the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade from Kursk in Russia, the court heard.
Andy Kraag, a Dutch police investigator, said investigators were looking to bring further prosecutions. “We are looking higher up the chain of command,” he said.
Mr Zelensky called the decision “important” but urged investigators to track down other perpetrators.
“Holding to account masterminds is crucial too, as the feeling of impunity leads to new crimes. We must dispel this illusion. Punishment for all the Russian Federation’s atrocities then and now is inevitable,” he wrote on Twitter.
James Cleverly, the Foreign Secretary, said: “The downing of MH17 was a shocking violation of international norms which keep our societies safe. It serves as a stark reminder of the human cost of Russia’s actions in Ukraine over many years.”
Peter Neenan, partner in the UK law firm Stewarts, which brought proceedings on behalf of several families against Girkin in 2015 and is currently acting to obtain compensation, called the verdict “an important step in the families of the victims of the MH17 disaster’s fight for justice, truth and accountability”.
“There were 10 British nationals on board flight MH17. As one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, the UK must now use this moment to offer its weight and support to any diplomatic discussions, alongside the governments of the Netherlands and Australia, and bring legal proceedings against Russia before ICAO.”
Russia dismissed the verdict as politically motivated.
“The course and the results of the proceedings indicate that they were based on a political order to reinforce the version promoted by The Hague and its associates,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.
Selected comments from DT readers :
Robert Grant: “A few well written pieces on Radio Free Europe website about the shooting down of MH17 and the subsequent detective work to trace who was involved. The Russians must have known that the upper airspace above Ukraine was still open to civilian flights (or the FSB are really thick) and should never have deployed the Buk missile launcher into Ukraine.”
Daniel Chapman: “Russia sends assassins to hunt down people they want. The ‘west’ should do the same to recover these three men from Russia, dead or alive.”
Bruce Burniston: “I can’t help feeling that if MH17 had been full of just French and German people, those countries might have been a little more assiduous in trying to stop Putin’s killings.”
Andrew Landriani; “The BUK SAM system; NATO codename ‘Gadfly’ is a battalion level weapons system, incorporating a launcher vehicle, a radar vehicle and a crane for reloads. These would be in addition to a generator and a trailer for additional missiles. In short all this would need to be crewed by dozens of men. The three convicted so far are the tip of the iceberg. The ultimate guilty party is the source of all such actions in Russia, – Putin!”
Iona Stephenson: “The rule of law in Europe is best exemplified by Putin blowing up the Polish presidential plane in 2010 with the Polish President Lech Kaczynski on board. Putin said nothing happened. Tusk said nothing happened. The forensics say quite unequivocally bombs. Tusk used his position at the EU to bring “rule of law” proceedings against the party his mate Vladimir tried to physically eliminate — the party of the dead president. The “Liberals” of Tusk want to outlaw the “Populists” and remove all pluralism from the media. And to stop Poland rearming to meet the Russian threat.”
James McCorkindale: “This particular version of ‘Russian Government’ are an embarrassment to humanity. Ordinary Russians can’t speak out for fear of terrible consequences for themselves and their families.”
Reply from Bruce Burniston: “The facts show that the vast majority of Russians vote for Putin and support his wars of conquest and murder against Chechnya, Georgia and Ukraine together with the murderous support of Assad in Syria. It’s Nazi Germany all over again.”
Yves Saint Hubert: “So it is confirmed that the war in Ukraine started in 2014, following the Maiden putsch, and not in 2022, as most people believe.”
Reply to the French troll from Simon Coulter: “If you refer to the ejection of the quisling Ukrainian President shown to be taking his orders from Putin and not the democratically elected Ukrainian parliament then so be it.”
Another reply to the French troll from Bruce Burniston: “It was a people’s revolt, not a putsch. Putin tried to put it down by using snipers to kill scores of unarmed young demonstrators.”
Swiss Steve: “The Russians are really nothing but pure evil on this planet. They just wreck lives and destroy and it doesn’t get them anywhere, like cats torturing mice for fun.”
Reply from Bruce Burniston: “As the Defence Secretary said, Russia exports gas, oil and extreme violence.”
“Russia has never admitted responsibility and claims Ukraine shot down the aircraft, although several mutually contradictory explanations it has offered have since been proven false.”
Par for the course. Putin and his sort could run over a blind man in the street and still blame him for not seeing the car coming his way…”
Hugh Tredegar: “Russia: A place Made in Hell.”
Wim Kotz: “3 of the 4 freedom fighters on trial who fought for “Donetsk” were actually Russian. Not ethnic Russians of Donetsk, but Russian Russian. Yes they’d say there were sympathisers who joined the Doneskians. But this is 3 out of 4. It just shows once again, as we knew even then, that this whole Donbas thing from Russia was a ruse and a lie from the start. Putin just wanted to expand his empire, fancying himself as some kind of mighty conqueror, but unlike the Alexanders and Napoleons (who do have plenty to answer for if we could wake them up now for interviews), he had only one weapon: lies.”
Nigel Bullock: “This shocking crime occurred in 2014 and was clearly the work of the Russians. They will deny anything about everything that implicates them in murders, poisoning and other horrific crimes. Why is this country still allowed at the table at the UN and why is it even allowed a veto at the Security Council. They are a murderous rogue state that should have its leaders removed to the Hague to stand trial. Is this too much of an issue for the G7 to consider..”