Dutch court convicts 3, acquits 1 over deadly MH17 plane downing

Russians Igor Girkin and Sergei Dubinsky, Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko convicted in absentia, sentenced to life imprisonment over 2014 incident in which 298 were killed

Judge Hendrik Steenhuis, second from left, speaks during the verdict session of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 trial at the high security court at Schiphol airport, near Amsterdam, Netherlands, November 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Phil Nijhuis)
Judge Hendrik Steenhuis, second from left, speaks during the verdict session of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 trial at the high security court at Schiphol airport, near Amsterdam, Netherlands, November 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Phil Nijhuis)

BADHOEVEDORP, Netherlands (AFP) — A Dutch court convicted three men and acquitted one on Thursday over the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 above Ukraine in 2014, as tensions still soar over Russia’s invasion eight years later.

Russians Igor Girkin and Sergei Dubinsky and Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko “are found guilty” of murder and intentionally causing an aircraft to crash, while Russian Oleg Pulatov was not guilty, head judge Hendrik Steenhuis said.

The first three were sentenced to life imprisonment in absentia.

None of the suspects were at the high-security court in the Netherlands for the verdict, while dozens of families traveled around the world to hear the judgment after a two-and-a-half-year trial.

All 298 passengers on board the Boeing 777 flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur were killed when the plane was hit by a missile, fired by what judges said were Russian-controlled separatists as it flew over eastern Ukraine.

Prosecutors have demanded life sentences for the suspects although the men are unlikely to serve time if convicted.

Piet Ploeg, who lost his brother, his sister-in-law and his nephew in the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17, speaks to media at Schiphol airport, near Amsterdam, Netherlands, November 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Patrick Post)

Piet Ploeg, chairman of the MH17 foundation, who lost his brother, sister-in-law and nephew, outside court told AFP he hoped the verdict could help families move on.

“I don’t believe in terms of closure — ask relatives who lost their children, you will never find closure for that. But I really hope that this day will give families some space to try to get on with their lives.”

‘Ample evidence’

Judges found Girkin, Dubinsky and Kharchenko could all be held responsible for the transport of the BUK missile from a military base in Russia and deploying it to the launch site, even if they did not pull the trigger.

There was not enough evidence to show that Pulatov, the only suspect to have legal representation during the trial, was involved, they said.

The court ruled there was “ample evidence” to show the plane was brought down by the missile, and that it was fired from a field in eastern Ukraine in an area controlled by the pro-Moscow Donetsk People’s Republic, which was fighting against Kyiv’s forces.

The proof included a photo of a smoke trail, witness testimony, satellite images, telephone intercepts, video images, and shrapnel.

FILE – Judges and lawyers view the reconstructed wreckage of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, at the Gilze-Rijen military Airbase, southern Netherlands, on May 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong, Pool)

The court ruled out “alternative scenarios” suggested by the defense including Russia’s initial suggestion that a Ukrainian fighter jet could have been responsible.

Judges also found that the Donetsk People’s Republic was “under Russian federation control” at the time of the downing of MH17.

Russia however “still denies to this day” that it controlled the DPR at the time, meaning that the defendants could not claim immunity from prosecution as formal combatants, the judges said.

‘Hunt them down’

The trial represents the end of a long search for justice for the victims of MH17, who came from 10 countries, including 196 Dutch, 43 Malaysians and 38 Australians.

The crash triggered global outrage and sanctions against Moscow, with Ukraine’s famed sunflower fields littered with bodies and wreckage. Some victims, including children, were still strapped into their seats after the plane was blasted out of the sky.

People inspect the crash site of a passenger plane near the village of Hrabove, Donetsk region of Ukraine, July 17, 2014. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky, File)

Eight years later, the region where MH17 crashed has become one of the key battlegrounds in Russia’s nearly nine-month-old war in Ukraine.

The MH17 trial has meanwhile emerged as something of a test case for efforts to bring perpetrators to justice over war crimes in Ukraine since 2014.

“The international community should hunt them down,” Evert van Zijtveld, who lost his daughter Frederique, 19, his son Robert-Jan, 18, and his parents-in-law, told AFP.

Prosecutors said Girkin, 51, a former Russian spy who became the so-called defense minister of the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic, was in regular contact with Russia.

Girkin recently criticized the Russian military over its handling of this year’s invasion and reportedly volunteered to fight in Ukraine.

Dubinsky, 60, who has also been tied to Russian intelligence, allegedly served as the separatists’ military intelligence chief and was responsible for giving orders about the missile.

Kharchenko, 50, who allegedly led a separatist unit, played a more direct role in transporting the missile, prosecutors said.

The BUK missile had been identified as coming from the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade from Kursk in Russia, the court heard.

Moscow has denied all involvement in the crash. It has refused to extradite any of the suspects, saying it is illegal under Russian law.

The verdict comes against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has sparked fears of a wider international war.

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