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MH17/the Netherlands

"This is a small part of our justice." MH17 verdict handed down in The Hague


The District Court of The Hague has sentenced three of the four suspects in the MH17 criminal case to life imprisonment for their role in the shooting down of the Malaysia Airlines plane over eastern Ukraine on 17 July 2014. The fourth suspect was acquitted by the court.

Russians Igor Girkin and Sergei Dubinsky and Ukrainian Leonid Khartchenko received life sentences. The charges against Russian Oleg Pulatov are not considered by the court to have been legally and convincingly proven and he therefore goes free. The prosecution had demanded life imprisonment against all four accused.

Sergei Dubinsky, Igor Girkin and Leonid Khartchenko

Girkin, Dubinsky and Khartyenko must also pay damages totalling more than 16 million euros to the relatives of the disaster.

On 17 July 2014, 298 people, including 80 children and 15 crew, boarded Malaysia Airlines flight 17 to Kuala Lumpur at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport.

The plane was cruising at 33,000 feet over Ukraine. It was the early days of Russia's efforts to control parts of the country.

At the time this was a relatively low-level conflict zone, but fighting had recently expanded into the air. In the preceding months a number of military planes had been shot down.

In response, Ukraine closed the airspace at lower altitudes - up to 32,000 feet. But planes were still crossing the country.

The Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 was flying 1,000 feet above this restricted airspace.

At 13:20 GMT, it lost contact with air traffic control.

Of the 298 on board from 17 countries, 196 were from the Netherlands, 43 from Malaysia, 38 from Australia and 10 from the UK. They had packed for dream holidays, an Aids conference, family reunions and more. In a flash, all plans for the future were obliterated.

Photo: Claus Blok Thomsen/

The court considers it proven that the MH17 plane was shot down with a Buk missile from an agricultural field in eastern Ukraine owned by pro-Russian rebels. There is a wealth of evidence for this, according to the court, including from found fragments of the missile, photographs, satellite images and witness statements.

At the time of the disaster, Russian-backed rebels were fighting the Ukrainian army in the area. Girkin (51) was the defence minister in rebel Donetsk Republic (DPR). He directed units and kept in touch with Russia. Doebinsky (60) was the head of intelligence in Donetsk. His deputy Pulatov (56) was the coordinator of the rebel group in the area, while Ukrainian Kharchenko (50) was commander of the fighting rebels.

According to the court, the convicts worked closely together to get the Buk missile installation from Russia to the rebel area and take it away again.

These men did not press the button themselves, but are still held responsible by the court for shooting down flight MH17 because of their directing military role and conscious cooperation with the aim of shooting down a plane.

The deployment of the Buk system was initiated by Doebinski, the court said. Archchenko was in charge of the transport. Doebinski and Khartshenko are therefore seen as co-perpetrators.

Pulatov knew about the deployment and saw the missile beforehand. Yet, according to the court, there is no evidence that he "himself made any contribution" to the Buk deployment. He is therefore acquitted of the charges.

Girkin was the military leader in the Donetsk People's Republic, responsible for building up and deploying the military arsenal and fighters, and in that role ultimately responsible. Although it cannot be proven that he knew about the Buk in advance, he thought the deployment was acceptable, according to the court. Therefore, he is considered a "functional perpetrator". Under his authority, aircraft had been downed before. Moreover, he actively worked to take the Buk back to Russia as soon as possible.

Daisy and Bryce were sitting in row 17 when the plane was shot down
Photo: Silene Fredriksz (Bryce's mother)

The court does not care whether the intention was specifically to hit MH17, only that a plane was deliberately shot down. Who ultimately gave the order to fire the missile and why, according to the court, cannot be determined.

According to the court, Russia was in full control of the self-proclaimed People's Republic of Donetsk at the time of the incident. The defendants cannot claim immunity under the law of war because both Russia and the separatists deny that the rebels were part of the Russian Federation.

The convicts were not present in court at the Schiphol Judicial Complex during the verdict because Russia does not want to extradite them. They were thus convicted in absentia. Only Russian Oleg Pulatov was represented by lawyers, who had also demanded an acquittal for their client. However, there were many relatives and (international) media in the courtroom.

A large amount of footage, tapes, transmitter data, witness statements and expert reports were used to investigate which weapon was used, which route the missile took and where those involved were at what time.

Eliot Higgins, founder of the investigative platform Bellingcat, delved into the open source evidence. His team identified links with Russia's 53rd Anti Aircraft Missile Brigade, and trawled through 200 soldiers' social media posts to confirm the identity and role of many members of the unit based at a Russian military barracks in Kursk. Bellingcat shared their findings with Dutch prosecutors. He believes the trial has laid bare indisputable proof of Russia's involvement.

"I think at this point, and especially with a guilty verdict," Eliot told us, "anyone who would claim that Russia wasn't involved with this shoot down is really a ridiculous person".

A 17-year-old Elsemiek was on board flight MH17
Photo: Hans de Borst (Elsemiek's father)

This does not necessarily end the MH17 criminal case. An appeal can still be lodged against the court's verdict. This must be done within two weeks. In addition, the investigation into other people involved in the disaster continues.

Numerous proceedings are also ongoing at the European Court of Human Rights and the Netherlands, together with Australia, has held Russia liable at the International Court of Justice for involvement in the downing of MH17.

The first hearing of the MH17 criminal case was on 9 March 2020. Many relatives exercised their right to speak during the trial. For three weeks last year, they told how their lives have been affected by the loss of their loved ones. On top of the grief, some became psychologically distressed, others lost their jobs or their relationships collapsed.

The judgment is unlikely to result in anyone serving time in jail for this mass murder, but the investigation has created an incontestable historical record and delivered the families some peace of mind.

"We will never get our children back," Silene Fredriksz accepts, "but… we need the truth. And we need justice. This is a small part of our justice."

Source: NOS, BBC

Cover photo: Fairfax Media via Getty Images

Source - BBC

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