An international investigation team looking into the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in July 2014 has made the strongest accusation yet of Russian involvement – conclusions that immediately provoked an angry response from Moscow.
On Wednesday, nearly five years after the plane was shot down by a missile over the battlefields of eastern Ukraine, the Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team announced it was bringing murder charges against four men.
All four are connected with Russian armed forces and/or the separatist forces under their influence. Three of the four – Igor Girkin, Sergei Dubinsky and Oleg Pulatov – are Russian and based in the country. A fourth man, Leonid Kharchenko, is a Ukrainian national, but understood to be living in territories still controlled by Russian-backed forces.
All four men have been placed on national and international wanted lists.
For the first time, Dutch chief prosecutor Fred Westerbeke said his investigators had detailed a “direct line” of military command from Russia. There was “information” that Mr Dubinsky was a member of the Russian armed forces, he added – at the very least until 2015. Mr Dubinsky has previously been named by journalists as the officer in charge of transporting the BUK missile unit implicated in the tragedy.
Mr Westerbeke said the men were being prosecuted on account of them helping to bring the “deadly weapon” into Ukraine. No of them had “pressed the button,” he stressed, but each “played a significant role” in causing the deaths of the 298 passengers and crew on board. That, he said, meant they were “equally liable” under Dutch law.
After being heavily trailed, the news was hardly surprising, but it was met with indignation in Moscow. In a statement published on Wednesday afternoon, the Russian Foreign Ministry dismissed the allegations: “Once again, absolutely groundless accusations are being made against the Russian side, aimed at discrediting the Russian Federation in the eyes of the international community.”
“The statements made by the Joint Investigation Team in the course of their press conference ... provoke nothing but pity,” the statement read.
Russia, which has refused to cooperate with the investigation, is unlikely to provide investigators with access to their suspects. But the development brings forward the prospect of prosecutions in absentia. Investigators emphasised that the trial, scheduled to start on 9 March 2020, may be extended to include other names if sufficient evidence emerges.
Investigators also used the press conference to release wiretapped phone calls connecting Russian presidential aide Vladislav Surkov to "separatist" leader Alexander Borodai in eastern Ukraine. Mr Surkov is shown promising “breakthrough military aid” six days before the BUK believed to have shot down MH17 entered the Ukraine.
More evidence would be presented at trial, they said.
All 298 passengers and crew on board the Boeing 777 aircraft were killed after it was hit mid-air as it flew between Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur. The majority of the victims were Dutch, but 10 British men were also on board. Eighty were children. Contact with the aircraft was lost over an area of eastern Ukraine when it was about 50km (31 miles) from the Ukraine-Russia border. The wreckage of the plane fell near the village of Hrabove in Donetsk Oblast, 40km (25 miles) from the border.
In 2016, the Joint Investigation Team made an interim judgment that it held Russia responsible for the incident. That was followed by a fuller report in May 2018, which pinned down the source of the missile that downed the plane. According to investigators, the complex was produced in 1986 in Dolgoprudny, near Moscow, and was in the service of the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade based in Kursk at the time of the incident.
On Tuesday, Dutch chief prosecutor Westerbeke told the press conference the investigating team had asked Russia about the whereabouts of the complex in July 2014, but had yet to receive an answer.
Russia has consistently denied involvement in the attack. In its denial, it has presented a large number of mutually-incompatible alternative theories – from claiming the missile was launched from within Ukraine-held territory, to suggesting it was shot down by a Ukrainian fighter plane. Separatist commander Igor Girkin, one of the men named by investigators today, is associated with the most incredible theory: that the plane had been filled with corpses before being sent over eastern Ukraine.
On Wednesday, Mr Girkin told a Russian news agency that he would be making no comment on the prospect of an international prosecution — other than to say that “separatist forces did not bring down the Boeing”.
Some have interpreted that statement as an attempt to deflect blame to regular Russian armed forces.
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