VEight years ago, passenger flight MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. On Thursday, the verdict is to be spoken in a trial against four alleged persons responsible. They have been charged with 298 counts of murder, and prosecutors are demanding life imprisonment. Since March 2020, Dutch judges at the competent court in The Hague have been hearing in the absence of the accused.
On July 17, 2014, a Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 took off from Amsterdam-Schiphol bound for Kuala Lumpur. The machine never arrived there, it crashed in the Ukrainian region of Donetsk near the village of Hrabowe. An international Joint Investigation Team (JIT) later concluded that the plane was shot down from the ground at 4:20 p.m. local time. The east of Ukraine was already fought over at the time, and the location where the plane was shot down was controlled by pro-Russian forces at the time of the crash.
On board the plane were passengers and crew members from ten countries, including four Germans. Several countries called for an international tribunal, but a trial before a United Nations court was vetoed by Russia. Since 193 of the victims came from the Netherlands, a process under national law began there in March 2020.
The alleged course of action
The five states from which most of the victims came – along with the Netherlands, Australia, Belgium, Malaysia and Ukraine – formed the investigative team after the crash to reconstruct the events. They came to the conclusion that the plane was hit by a Soviet-type “Buk” missile. Investigators assigned the missile system to the 53rd Air Defense Brigade of the Russian Armed Forces. It was transferred from Russia to the Donbass and brought back after it was shot down. According to the JIT, the findings come from witness statements, debris from the plane and the rocket, satellite images and radar information, photos and videos of the transport of the rocket and telephone recordings between the accused.
Investigators identified four main suspects, three Russians and one Ukrainian. Igor Girkin was then “Minister of Defense” and supreme commander of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic”. Sergey Dubinsky was one of his deputies and head of the “People’s Republic” intelligence service. Oleg Pulatov was again deputy head of intelligence. All three had previously worked for various Russian intelligence agencies. The fourth suspect, Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko, commanded a pro-Russian unit in July 2014.
None of the four appeared at the trial, only Pulatov was represented by lawyers. He denies any involvement in the downing of the plane. All of the defendants are believed to be in Russia or in Russian-annexed areas of Ukraine. As a rule, Russia does not extradite nationals to other states, and the Ukrainian Chartschenko may have acquired Russian citizenship.
A critical point in the process is that the suspects should not have pressed the rocket launch button themselves. Instead, the prosecution only refers to the fact that they procured the projectile and caused it to be shot down. Their specific role and responsibility had to be clarified in the process. In addition, the separatists are said to be actually targeting a military aircraft from Ukraine. According to the public prosecutor’s office, however, they accepted that a civilian aircraft could be hit. It is therefore open whether the judges will follow the arguments of the prosecution.
The role of Russia
The Kremlin denies any involvement in the crash and at the time also denied being involved in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Nevertheless, Russia prevented the testimony of a former Russian air defense commander by exchanging prisoners. Government officials and state-run media disseminated different, even contradictory, versions of the disaster. This creates the impression that the truth about the crash cannot be determined and that Russia is the victim of a conspiracy.