AMSTERDAM — A Dutch court on Thursday found three men with ties to Russia’s security services guilty and sentenced them to life in prison for shooting down a passenger plane over eastern Ukraine in 2014 during a Moscow-backed separatist uprising that heralded Russia’s full extent invasion of the country. A fourth suspect was acquitted.
The verdict offers a sheer measure of justice for the 298 people killed in the downing of the jet, a scheduled Malaysia Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: the men – three Russians and one Ukrainian – were never arrested, it will believed to be in Russia or a territory controlled by Russia and tried in absentia.
But the war in Ukraine has given the case greater prominence. Support for the separatists in eastern Ukraine was a key pretext used by President Vladimir V Putin when he issued the invasion order in February this year, and many survivors have drawn a direct link between the rout and the war. The verdict could also be an example of a possible prosecution of Russian crimes during the current war.
Two Russians – Igor Girkin, a former colonel in Russia’s Federal Security Service and Sergey Dubinsky, a former officer in Russia’s military intelligence agency – have been found guilty of murder and shooting down a plane. A Ukrainian citizen – Leonid Kharchenko, who headed a Russian-backed military unit – was found guilty of the same charges.
The fourth man, Oleg Pulatov, also a former Russian military intelligence officer, was acquitted because he was deemed insufficiently involved in the episode.
The trial opened more than two years ago in an attempt to assign responsibility for a crime long thought to be an unpunished crime. On July 17, 2014, an anti-aircraft missile provided to the separatists by the Russian military shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, commonly known as MH17, at cruising altitude over eastern Ukraine. All on board were killed.
The crash of MH17 strewn bodies and debris across fields, sparking global outrage and prompting Western nations to hold Russia accountable. Most of the victims were Dutch, but the flight also carried passengers from Australia, Britain, Malaysia and several other countries.
There has been much speculation that the people who fired the missile thought they were targeting a Ukrainian military aircraft and not an airliner. The separatists had previously shot down Ukrainian planes.
Russia has repeatedly denied any responsibility for the tragedy, despite evidence that the plane was shot down by a Buk surface-to-air missile sent into eastern Ukraine from a Russian military base across the border, and intercepted calls and messages that suggesting the involvement of Russian-backed separatists.
Instead, Moscow has churned out a series of implausible counter-statements and conspiracy theories, mostly focused on blaming Ukraine and attacking the legitimacy of the investigation. They included the possibility that the CIA had hurled a planeload of corpses into eastern Ukraine to frame Moscow.
Since Russia vetoed the creation of a UN tribunal on the case, the trial is taking place in a local criminal court on the outskirts of Amsterdam, near the sprawling Schiphol Airport from which MH17 flew in 2014.