MH-17: Six Years On and Still No Justice for the Victims

MH-17: Six Years On and Still No Justice for the Victims

The downing of Flight MH17 on July 17th, 2014, was the worst war crime against civilians since the war in Donbas began. The flight was en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it was shot down over eastern Ukraine.  The attack was carried out by members of the Russian military and Russian-backed rebels.  The incident occurred during fighting in the Shakhtarsk rebel-controlled district and the crash site was near the village of Hrabove in the Dontesk oblast. 283 passengers from ten different countries and fifteen crew members were on board the doomed Boeing 777-200ER.

Since the majority of the passengers were Dutch, the Dutch Safety Board and a Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team (JIT) were responsible for conducting the investigation. Six years have passed since this terrible disaster in the conflict in Eastern Europe and despite the demand for justice the greatest obstacle has been Russian interference.On July 18th, 2014, the day after the incident, pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine were quick to deny any accusations that they had been responsible for downing the passenger liner. According to the Ukrainian government, there were records of phone conversations that showed the involvement of a Russian agent along with pro-Russian rebel fighters. The following day, Russian President Vladimir Putin also denied Russian involvement and blamed the Ukrainian government for allowing civilian aircraft to fly over an active conflict zone. Meanwhile, July 19th also saw the official beginning of the Dutch Public Prosecution Service’s criminal investigation and the arrival of Dutch investigators in Ukraine.

With investigation efforts well underway, on July 21st the United Nations Security Council adopted UNSC Resolution 2166 which condemned the attack and called for all states and actors in the region to fully cooperate with the investigation of the incident and establish accountability. That same day, Malaysian officials met with a group of rebels in Donetsk, where the rebels handed over the black box from Flight MH17 for examination. The JIT, which was established to conduct the investigation, was formed on August 7th, 2014. The team consisted of officials from the Dutch Public Prosecution Service and Dutch Police, as well as law enforcement and criminal justice officials from Malaysia, Australia, Belgium, and Ukraine. The team’s primary task was to uncover the truth behind the incident, identify the perpetrators, and collect criminal evidence for the prosecution.

The JIT worked extensively over the next two years to uncover more evidence connected with the disaster, and on September 28th, 2016, they determined that MH17 was shot down by a Buk surface-to-air missile fired from a Buk TELAR in eastern Ukraine.  On July 5th, 2017, the JIT countries decided that the trial would take place in the Netherlands under Dutch law. As the investigation continued, the JIT discovered that the Buk TELAR used in the downing of Flight MH17 belonged to the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade of the Russian Army. It was also determined that the Buk missile launcher was transported from Russia on the day the plane was shot down and returned immediately after it was used in a rebel-controlled zone.

On June 19th, 2019, almost five years after the incident, the Dutch Public Prosecution Service announced that it would prosecute four suspects based on the findings of the JIT investigation. The four suspects including three Russians: Igor Girkin, Sergey Dubinskiy, Oleg Pulatov, and a Ukrainian, Leonid Kharchenko. The Russian government continues to deny involvement in the incident and claimed the accusations against its military were “absolutely threadbare.” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has stated: “Russia must ensure that any indicted individuals currently in Russia face justice.” Several Dutch officials that claim that Russia has refused to cooperate with the investigation. Russia’s foreign ministry, however, has continually denied these claims, arguing that Russia has always been interested in establishing the truth. Furthermore, Russia claims JIT has ignored evidence provided by Russia and accuses them of using evidence “fabricated” by Ukraine.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova was “100% certain that politics is dominating in the court case.”  Zakharova also claimed that Moscow had provided Dutch investigators with “tons of materials on this case which were disregarded.” On the second day of the pre-trial hearings of the four suspects, Dutch prosecutors said that Moscow had sought to undermine the investigation into the downing of MH17 over Eastern Ukraine and was posing a threat to witnesses. Although Russia claims to have cooperated with the inquiry, it has also presented multiple versions of what brought down the flight.

Dutch officials asked the Russian government to submit any information they had. However, at one point the information provided turned out to be "factually inaccurate on several points". There was one case late last year when Russia was asked by Dutch prosecutors to arrest a Ukrainian suspect alleged to have controlled rebel air defenses close to the missile firing site. Instead, according to prosecutors, Russia deliberately allowed him to travel to eastern Ukraine. In 2018, the governments of the Netherlands and Australia made it clear that they held Russia responsible for the deployment of the Buk missile system.

As for the four suspects facing trial, the JIT determined that they had played a significant role in launching the missile. Dutch Chief Prosecutor Fred Westerbeke stated: “Although they did not push the button themselves, we suspect them of close co-operation to get the BUK missile launcher where it was, with the aim to shoot down an aeroplane." The investigators also continued to find strong evidence that Russia provided the missile launcher. Of the four suspects, Igor Girkin is the most prominent figure. Prosecutors claim he is a former colonel in Russia’s FSB intelligence service and was given the title of minister of defense in the rebel-controlled city of Donetsk. Sergey Dubinskiy, who is claimed to have been employed by Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency, was Girkin’s deputy and maintained contact with Russia. Oleg Pulatov, who the JIT claims to be a former GRU special forces soldier, also served as the deputy head of intelligence in Donetsk. The fourth suspect, Ukrainian National Leonid Kharchenko had no military background but according to prosecutors commanded a rebel combat unit in Eastern Ukraine.

The trial of these four suspects officially began on March 9th, 2020, before the Hague District Court at the Justice Complex Schiphol, near Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport - the departure point for Flight MH17. Despite the efforts of the Dutch-led JIT and the strong evidence against the accused parties, the four suspects will not be present at the trial to face justice. Little is known about who will testify before the court unconfirmed reports suggest that there are thirteen anonymous witnesses. However, the judges may decide that anyone who has already provided evidence may not need to appear in court. The outcome of the trial is, of course uncertain, but Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky welcomed the Dutch-led inquiry’s conclusions and the JIT is still determined to uncover the truth behind the crime and bring those responsible to justice.