A Dutch court on Thursday found two Russians and a separatist Ukrainian guilty of mass murder for their involvement in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014.
Igor Girkin, a former Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) colonel, and Sergey Dubinskiy, who worked for Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency, were convicted along with Ukrainian separatist Leonid Kharchenko, who is believed to have killed a combat unit in Donetsk in July led 2014.
The three were sentenced to life in prison and ordered to pay victims more than €16 million, but as the convictions were handed down in absentia, none of them are likely to serve their sentences. A fourth suspect, Russian citizen Oleg Pulatov, a former soldier of the Russian special forces Spetsnaz-GRU, was acquitted.
“Causing the crash of flight MH17 and the murders of all persons on board is such a serious accusation, the consequences are so devastating and the conduct of the accused is so reprehensible that a limited prison sentence will not suffice,” the court said. said after the verdict.
Flight MH17 was en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur on 17 July 2014 when it was shot down over territory held by pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine. All 298 people on board were killed, including 15 crew members and 283 passengers from 17 countries.
The downing of the jet came early in the conflict between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces, a prelude to Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine earlier this year.
Thursday’s verdict, which follows a two-year trial at the high-security Judicial Complex Schiphol in Badhoevedorp, marks the first time an independent verdict has been reached on the incident and may offer a small amount of justice to the families of the victims.
The case has become more important in light of the all-out Russian invasion of Ukraine, which is approaching its ninth month. A legal expert told Reuters the ruling could have implications for other cases involving Russia, including a case before the United Nations’ highest court, the International Court of Justice.
The verdict comes weeks after Moscow tried to illegally annex four Ukrainian regions, including the area where the missile that downed MH17 had been fired eight years earlier, according to the court. It also comes two days after a missile landed in Poland, sparking fears Russia’s attack on Ukraine could spill over to neighboring countries.
The court ruled that flight MH17 was hit by a Russian Buk missile launched from farmland outside a village in eastern Ukraine held at the time by pro-Russian rebels controlled by Moscow, and that the missile system had been returned to Russia after the strike.
The three convicted men all played key roles in transporting the Buk system and its crew to Ukraine, the court ruled, although there was not enough evidence to determine who fired the missile.
Presiding judge Hendrik Steenhuis said the court ruled that firing the missile at MH17 was a premeditated act intended to bring down a plane – and while the crew probably thought they were firing at a military plane, it would have been would have been “abundantly obvious” to them that no one aboard a targeted aircraft would survive.
“A Buk weapon system is designed to shoot down aircraft and cannot be used at random. Such a deployment requires preparation, including determination of and transportation to a launch site. The firing of the missile must be done very deliberately according to a technical procedure and requires a well-trained crew. The chance that occupants of an aircraft survive an attack with a Buk missile is nil. Anyone deploying a specialized, costly weapon such as a Buk-TELAR will be aware of this,” the court said in a statement.
The court also ruled that since the defendants were not official parties to the conflict and thus had no combat immunity, they could not shoot down any aircraft, military or civilian.
Moscow has repeatedly denied any responsibility for the attack, and Russian officials and state media have released a range of often contradictory explanations for the tragedy.
But on Thursday, Steenhuis cited a range of evidence for the court’s verdict and ruled out alternative explanations for the incident.
The evidence reviewed by the court included fragments of a Buk missile found embedded in the plane and the bodies of some of the victims, intercepted telephone calls and witness statements, and videos and images of the scene and of a Buk system being sent from Russia to East -Ukraine was moved. and then back again.
The convicted men have the right to appeal. Moscow described the verdict as “politically motivated” and said it would not extradite the convicted Russians to the Netherlands.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky described the verdict as an important moment for accountability. “Holding masterminds to account is also crucial, as the sense of impunity leads to new crimes. We must dispel this illusion. Punishment for everyone [Russia’s] atrocities then and now are inevitable,” he tweeted.
Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said the United States welcomed the court’s decision but that there was more work to be done.
“While this is a solid step towards justice, more work lies ahead to meet the UN Security Council’s demand in resolution 2166 that “those responsible … be held accountable,” Blinken said in a statement.