- Crash killed 298 passengers and crew
- The court finds that a Russian missile downed the plane
- Convicted men are refugees, believed in Russia
AMSTERDAM, Nov 17 (Reuters) – Dutch judges have convicted two Russian men and a Ukrainian man in absentia of murder for their role in the downing of flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014, which killed 298 passengers and crew, and have sentenced them to life in prison.
Ukraine welcomed the ruling, which will affect other lawsuits Kiev has brought against Russia, while Moscow called the ruling “outrageous” and said it would not extradite its citizens.
Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 was departing from Amsterdam en route to Kuala Lumpur when it was shot down over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014, as fighting raged between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces, heralding this year’s conflict.
The verdict came as a relief to the victims’ relatives, more than 200 of whom attended the court in person and wiped away tears as the verdict was read.
“Only the heaviest sentence is appropriate in retaliation for what the suspects have done, which has caused so much suffering to so many victims and so many relatives,” said judge Hendrik Steenhuis.
The three men convicted were former Russian intelligence agents Igor Girkin and Sergey Dubinskiy, and Leonid Kharchenko, a leader of the Ukrainian separatists.
The three were all found to have helped arrange the transport to Ukraine of the Russian military BUK missile system used to shoot down the plane, although they were not the ones who physically pulled the trigger.
They are fugitives and are said to be in Russia. A fourth ex-defendant, Russian Oleg Pulatov, was acquitted of all charges.
The 2014 incident left the wreckage of the plane and the remains of the victims scattered over fields of corn and sunflowers.
Russia invaded Ukraine in February and claims to have annexed the Donetsk province where the plane was shot down.
“The victims’ families wanted the truth and they wanted justice to be done and those responsible to be punished and that’s what happened. I’m quite happy,” says Piet Ploeg, who heads a foundation that represents victims, to Reuters. Ploeg’s brother, his brother’s wife and his cousin died on flight MH17.
Australia’s Meryn O’Brien, who lost her 25-year-old son Jack, said she was relieved. “Everyone was relieved that the process has come to an end, and it is very fair and meticulous.”
“There is no celebration,” said Britain’s Jordan Withers, whose uncle Glenn Thomas died. “Nothing will bring back any of the victims.” They came from 10 different countries.
The verdict included a compensation of 16 million euros.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy called the first convictions for MH17 an “important decision” by the court in The Hague.
“But it is imperative that those who ordered it also end up in the dock, because the sense of impunity leads to new crimes,” he wrote on Twitter. “We must dispel this illusion. Punishment for all Russian atrocities – then and now – will be inevitable.”
The ruling showed that as of mid-May 2014, Russia had “overall control” over the armed forces of the Donetsk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine.
“This is groundbreaking,” says Marieke de Hoon, assistant professor of international law at the University of Amsterdam. The ruling was “authoritative” and likely to give impetus to other international cases from Ukraine against Russia related to the 2014 conflict.
‘NO REASONABLE DOUBT’
Judge Steenhuis said there was sufficient evidence from eyewitness accounts and photographs that tracked the missile system’s movements in and out of Ukraine and into Russia.
“There is no reasonable doubt” that MH17 was shot down by a Russian missile system, Steenhuis said.
Moscow denies any involvement in or responsibility for the downing of MH17 and in 2014 also denied any presence in Ukraine.
In a statement, Russia’s foreign ministry said “during 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 court in The Hague has ignored the principles of impartial justice in favor of the current political situation, causing serious reputational damage to the entire justice system in the Netherlands,” it added.
Prosecutors had charged the four men with shooting down a plane and with murder in a trial under Dutch law, as more than half of the victims were Dutch. Intercepted phone calls, which were a key piece of evidence, suggested the men believed they were targeting a Ukrainian fighter jet.
Steenhuis said that while that meant something in terms of lessening the severity of their criminal responsibility, they still had murderous intent and the consequences of their actions were huge.
Of the accused, only Pulatov had pleaded not guilty through lawyers he had hired to represent him. The others were tried in absentia and no one attended the trial.
The police investigation was led by the Netherlands, with the cooperation of Ukraine, Malaysia, Australia and Belgium.
Thursday’s ruling is not the last word on holding people accountable for MH17, the Dutch and Australian authorities said.
Andy Kraag, head of the police investigation, said investigations into possible suspects continue higher up the chain of command. Investigators are also looking at the crew of the missile system that launched the deadly missile.
The Dutch and Australian governments, which hold Russia responsible, have initiated proceedings against the Russian Federation with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).
Report by Toby Sterling, Stephanie van den Berg and Bart Meijer; Edited by Jon Boyle, Alex Richardson, Toby Chopra, Alexandra Hudson
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