- The crash killed 298 passengers and crew
- The court ruled that a Russian missile shot down the plane
- Convicted men are on the run, it is believed in Russia
AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – Dutch judges have convicted in absentia two Russians and a Ukrainian of murder for their roles in the 2014 downing of Flight MH17 over Ukraine, which killed 298 passengers and crew, and have sentenced them to life in prison. .
Ukraine welcomed the ruling, which will have repercussions for other cases brought by Kyiv against Russia, while Moscow described the ruling as “scandalous” and said it would not extradite its citizens.
Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 had departed from Amsterdam and was bound for Kuala Lumpur when it was shot down over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014, as fighting raged between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces, a harbinger of conflict this year.
The verdict came as a relief to the family members of the victims, more than 200 of whom attended the court in person, wiping away tears as the verdict was read.
“Only the most severe punishment is appropriate to respond to what the suspects did, which caused so many victims and so many surviving relatives to suffer,” said presiding judge Hendrik Stenhaus.
The three convicted men are former KGB agents Igor Girkin and Sergey Dubinsky, and Leonid Kharchenko, a Ukrainian separatist leader.
The three were found to help arrange the transfer to Ukraine of the Russian BUK military missile system that was used to shoot down the plane, although they were not the ones who actually pulled the trigger.
They are on the run and are believed to be in Russia. A fourth suspect, Russia’s Oleg Bulatov, has been acquitted of all charges.
The crash in 2014 left the wreckage of the plane and the remains of victims strewn across fields of corn and sunflowers.
Russia invaded Ukraine in February and claims to have annexed the Donetsk region where it shot down the plane.
“The families of the victims wanted the truth, they wanted justice and punishment for those responsible, and that’s what happened. I’m very relieved,” Pete Bloig, who heads a foundation representing the victims, told Reuters. Plug’s brother, sister-in-law and nephew died in MH17.
Merrin O’Brien from Australia, who lost her 25-year-old son Jack, said she was relieved. “Everyone was relieved that the process had come to an end, which was very fair, and it was accurate.”
“There’s no celebration,” said Jordan Withers of Britain, whose uncle Glenn Thomas has passed away. Nothing will bring back any of the victims.” They came from 10 different countries.
The ruling included damages of 16 million euros.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hailed the first sentences handed down against MH17 as an “important decision” by the court in The Hague.
“But it is imperative that those who ordered it end up in the dock because the feeling 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 found that Russia had “comprehensive control” over Donetsk People’s Republic forces in eastern Ukraine as of mid-May 2014.
“This is the cornerstone,” said Marieke de Hoon, assistant professor of international law at the University of Amsterdam. The ruling was “authoritative” and is likely to bolster Ukraine’s other international cases against Russia in connection with the 2014 conflict.
“No reasonable doubt”
Judge Stenhuis said there was ample 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 the MH17 was shot down by a Russian missile system, Stenhuis said.
Moscow denies any involvement or responsibility in the downing of MH17 and in 2014 also denied any presence in Ukraine.
“During the trial, the court came under unprecedented pressure from politicians, prosecutors and the Dutch media to impose a politically motivated result,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
“We deeply regret that the District Court in The Hague ignored the principles of impartial justice in favor of the current political situation, causing a serious blow to the reputation of the entire judicial system in the Netherlands,” she added.
Prosecutors had charged the four men with shooting down a plane and murder in a trial held under Dutch law, because more than half of the victims were Dutch. The phone call intercepts that formed a major part of the evidence indicated that the men believed they were targeting a Ukrainian fighter jet.
Steenhuis said that while this is important in terms of minimizing the severity of their criminal liability, they still had murderous intent and the consequences of their actions were enormous.
Of the suspects, only Bulatov pleaded not guilty via the lawyers he had hired to represent him. The others were tried in absentia and none of them attended the trial.
The Netherlands led the police investigation, with participation from Ukraine, Malaysia, Australia and Belgium.
The Dutch and Australian authorities said Thursday’s ruling is not the final word on holding people accountable for MH17.
Andy Cragg, the head of the police investigation, said the search continues into potential suspects higher up the chain of command. Investigators are also looking into the crew of the missile system that fired the deadly missile.
Blaming Russia for responsibility, the Dutch and Australian governments initiated proceedings against the Russian Federation in the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).
(Reporting by Toby Sterling, Stephanie van den Bergh and Bart Meagher) Editing by John Boyle, Alex Richardson, Toby Chopra and Alexandra Hudson
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