A Dutch court has ruled that Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was brought down by a Russian missile.
In a courtroom packed with relatives of victims killed in the 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, a Dutch judge began reading the verdict today (Nov 17) in the trial of three Russians and a Ukrainian on trial for their alleged roles in the aviation disaster.
The verdict comes more than eight years after the Boeing 777 flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was blown out of the sky over Ukraine, killing all 298 passengers and crew members. The midair explosion and crash on July 17, 2014 happened amid a conflict between pro-Russia rebels and Ukrainian forces.
Presiding Judge Hendrik Steenhuis opened Thursday’s hearing and said “the court takes the view that the MH17 was brought down by a Buk missile” launched from an agricultural field in eastern Ukraine.
In another important finding, Steenhuis said that the court believed that Russia had overall control at the time of a separatist region in eastern Ukraine, the Donetsk People’s Republic. The crash scattered wreckage and bodies over farmland and fields of sunflowers.
The judge said he would go on to rule on other legal issues and the guilt or innocence of the suspects later in the hearing.
Tension was high among families ahead of the hearing.
Anton Kotte, who lost his son, daughter-in-law and his six-year-old grandson when MH17 was shot down. He said the hearing was a “D-Day” for relatives.
He said: “The truth on the table — that is the most important thing.”
Robbert van Heijningen, who lost his brother, sister-in-law and nephew, called the downing “an act of barbarism” that he could never put behind him, regardless of the verdict.
He said: “I call it a stone in my heart, and stones … don’t disappear.”
None of the suspects appeared for the trial that began in March 2020 and if they are convicted, it’s unlikely they will serve any sentence anytime soon. Prosecutors have sought life sentences for all four. Prosecutors and the suspects have two weeks to file an appeal.
The Hague District Court, sitting at a high-security courtroom at Schiphol Airport, is passing judgment against a backdrop of global geopolitical upheaval caused by Russia’s full-blown invasion of Ukraine in February and the nearly nine-month war it triggered.
Hundreds of family members of people killed traveled to the court to hear the verdict, bringing them back to the airport their loved ones left on the fateful day MH17 was shot down. Outside the court, planes could be heard taking off and landing nearby on a cold, gray day.
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Stepan Stepanenko, senior research fellow, Henry Jackson Society, said the ruling was the first real judgement of Russia.
He said: “I would say this ruling on MH17 is the first real judgment of Russia, Russian actions and Russians in relation to the war in Ukraine, which has been going on since 2014.
“The four individuals on trial, although all still at large, have been found guilty in the court of public opinion, they have been found guilty in the court of evidence provided by independent investigative teams like Bellingcat, and they will be found guilty by history.
“Today is about a small but important step in the wider journey to make Russia legally responsible and eventually pay for all the suffering caused.”
Dutch prosecutors say the missile launcher came from the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade, a unit of the Russian armed forces based in the Russian city of Kursk and was driven back there after MH17 was shot down.
The Russian suspects aren’t accused of firing the missile but of working together to get it to the field where it was fired. They are accused of bringing down the plane and the murder of all those on board.
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The most senior defendant is Igor Girkin, a 51-year-old former colonel in Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB. At the time of the downing, he was defense minister and commander of the armed forces of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic — the region where the plane was shot down. Girkin reportedly is currently involved in Russia’s war on Ukraine.
Also on trial are Girkin’s subordinates, Sergey Dubinskiy, Oleg Pulatov, and Leonid Kharchenko, a Ukrainian who prosecutors say was commander of a pro-Russia rebel combat unit and took orders directly from Dubinskiy.
Pulatov is the only one of the suspects who was represented by defense lawyers at the trial. They accused prosecutors of “tunnel vision” in basing their case on the findings of an international investigation into the downing while ignoring other possible causes.
Pulatov’s defense team also sought to discredit evidence and argued he didn’t get a fair trial.
In a video recording played in court, Pulatov insisted he was innocent and told judges: “What matters to me is that the truth is revealed. It’s important for me that my country is not blamed for this tragedy.”