MH17 case: two Russians and a Ukrainian were sentenced to life imprisonment for shooting down a Malaysian Boeing over Donbass

The Hague court found guilty two Russians and one Ukrainian in the crash of the Malaysian Boeing. The disaster occurred over the Donbass in July 2014. There were 298 people on board the plane.  no one survived. Read more about the tragedy told the publication with the BBC.

Photo: IStock

The court considered the guilt of Igor Girkin (Strelkov), Sergei Dubinsky and Leonid Kharchenko proven. All three were sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment. As for the fourth defendant, Oleg Pulatov (for the summer of 2014 - a lieutenant colonel in the reserve of the Russian Airborne Forces) was found not guilty.

According to the court's decision, the evidence that the plane was shot down by a Buk missile is very convincing. The rocket was fired from the village of Pervomaisky (occupied Donetsk region). This is supported by many studies and testimonies. The deficiencies pointed out by the defense were minor - they are not enough to consider the investigation biased. The materials of the Russian side, on the contrary, were inconclusive and often turned out to be forgeries.

The arguments of the defense that the court could not pass an impartial verdict, since the main source of information was the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), the court rejected. The wiretapping data is confirmed by other evidence, in particular photographs, video files, analysis of the geolocation of the phones of the accused, and testimonies of witnesses.

The trial in the case of the crash of a Boeing 777 flying from Amsterdam (Netherlands) to Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) was held in the Netherlands, since two-thirds of the dead passengers of flight MH17 were citizens of this country. The international investigative team that conducted the investigation is headed by the Dutch prosecutor Fred Westerbeke.

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Russia refused to send its representatives to this group. They said that the whole process is politicized, and the investigation is biased. The investigation began two weeks after the disaster, and the trial started in March 2020.

Three convicts

The Hague court found guilty of the plane crash two citizens of Russia and one citizen of Ukraine:

  • Igor Girkin (Strelkov) - a citizen of Russia; as of the summer of 2014, the Minister of Defense of the self-proclaimed DPR, a retired FSB officer;
  • Sergey Dubinsky is a citizen of Russia; for the summer of 2014, a retired senior Russian military intelligence officer;
  • Leonid Kharchenko is a citizen of Ukraine; for the summer of 2014, the commander of the military intelligence unit of the “army of the DPR”.

At the same time, the court agreed with the conclusions of the investigation that none of the convicts personally participated in the launch of the missile that shot down the plane, although Kharchenko could have been present directly at the launch site. 

The convicts took part in the process of delivering the Buk anti-aircraft missile system from Russia to the Donbass, and then ensured the evacuation of the air defense system back to the territory of Russia. At one of the previous meetings, the prosecutors claimed that the four convicted "jointly led the plan to destroy the aircraft."

According to the court, the perpetrators must pay 16 million euros in compensation to the relatives of the victims.

Russia's role

The court concluded that the plane was shot down by a rocket fired from Pervomaisky near the town of Snizhne, in eastern Ukraine (this territory was then under the control of forces of the self-proclaimed so-called DPR).

According to the court, at that time Russia had already established control over the leaders of the "DNR".

The court ruled that since mid-May, Russia has provided training for DPR militants, the supply of weapons and food, exercised serious influence on local politicians, coordinated military actions of the separatists, and itself undertook military operations in eastern Ukraine.

For example, having studied the statement and intercepted telephone conversations of Alexander Borodai (he is considered the leader of the “DPR” from May to August 2014), the court concluded that despite his “high position”, Borodai constantly consulted with representatives of the Russian authorities about making decisions, including on decisions regarding the situation with flight MH17.

The court concluded that the actions of the “DPR” commanders were coordinated with Russia. This is evidenced by the intercepts of numerous conversations between separatists of various ranks, from junior officers to the then “DPR Minister of Defense” Igor Girkin.

"Very strong evidence"

In making this decision, the court was guided by several groups of evidence.

For example, photographs of the smoke contrail from the rocket launch that shot down the plane. A man who personally took such a photo from the balcony of his house in the city of Torez was interrogated as a witness. Examination of this photograph showed that a comparison of the direction of this trail, the time when the photograph was taken, and the time when MH17 disappeared from the radar, allows us to assert that this is precisely the missile that shot down MH17. 

Among other things, the court obtained the testimony of the secret “Witness M58”, who claims that he personally saw a Buk drive into the field near Pervomaisky, then a loud explosion sounded from the field. After that, the installation was taken out of the field, but already without one rocket. The testimony of this witness was called into question by the defense because of its alleged inconsistency, but the court ruled that it could trust them, since the witness could consider certain details unimportant or simply let his memory down.

In addition, the court was guided by satellite photographs of the Buk launch site before and after the salvo. The court drew attention to a fire in a field near Pervomaisky: it could have been caused by a rocket launch. Traces from caterpillars left on the field also coincide with the technical data of the Buk air defense system.

The intercepted telephone conversations also indicate that the Buk hit some kind of target in the air. But at first, the militants thought they shot down a Ukrainian military plane. Only after a while did they realize that it was the civilian airliner that had crashed.

The court was guided by examinations of striking elements in the form of a butterfly, characteristic of the Buk air defense missile system, as well as a certain green fragment found in the pillar of the left window of the cockpit. Expert conclusions and a study of the metallurgical composition of this fragment showed that this fragment belongs precisely to the rocket from the Buk.

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According to the judge, all these factors combined form "very strong evidence" that the plane was shot down by a Buk missile from a field near Pervomayskoye.

The judge stated that it was impossible to establish from the materials of the case exactly how the Buk crew acted at the time of the rocket launch, who exactly gave the crew the instruction to launch the rocket and how it happened.

"They don't have a voice"

John and Marin O'Brien, who lost their son in this accident, traveled about 17 thousand kilometers to be present at the verdict.

25-year-old Jack almost missed that fateful flight. He was transported at the baggage check-in, then got a little stuck in the line for inspection. Surveillance cameras at Amsterdam Airport caught Jack, aged 25, running towards the now-empty gate. Three hours later, the plane he was in such a hurry to fly to was blown to pieces.

“Why didn’t he fall, didn’t twist his leg when he was running on that flight? It hurts terribly to think that he could have been late for that plane, but he was not late ... " - laments Marin, Jack's mother.

She and her husband followed the course of the trial for two and a half years. According to John and Marin, the most difficult meeting for them was during which they played recordings of negotiations between the military of the self-proclaimed "DNR" immediately after the crash. In these recordings, the separatists rejoice at the downed plane and congratulate each other.

“This court decision is really very important, - Marin says. - We see how carefully the investigation team worked, how much evidence was collected, how thoroughly all the versions were analyzed. A lot of people were involved in this process, and we are grateful to all of them for their thorough work.”

Regarding the recognition of Pulatov not guilty, Marin believes: “In my opinion, this is even good, because it shows that the court really weighed everything and considered that the evidence against him was not serious enough.”

"I feel relieved - Marin says. - This relief is due to the long wait that preceded the verdict. And I'm still shaking a little. I'm sad. I feel that Jack would like us to be here today to represent him, because he, like the other passengers on this plane, no longer has a voice.

“It seems to me that this process was not so much about Russia, but about specific defendants. But I want to say to the Russians: it was an honest trial, and what we thought was true turned out to be true. And their government's involvement is central to what happened. If it had not started the conflict in Ukraine from the very beginning, our loved ones would have been with us. And I’m even sad that the Russian government is leading its people down such a terrible path.”

In the crash of flight MH17, Pete Ploog lost his brother Alex, his wife and their son. Pete was shocked when he learned that the investigation found 80 fragments of his nephew's body. The body of his brother Alex was never found.

“We have full confidence in the court and judicial system in the Netherlands. And that means that an innocent person will be found not guilty. So Pulatov was acquitted. Perhaps this is a wise decision, but I would like to read the text of the verdict," - he noticed.

For many years, Plug wanted to know who was responsible for what happened: “Now it is absolutely clear. And that's good news."

Anton Kotte lost his son, his wife and their child. To help himself cope with the tragedy, he set up a charitable foundation for relatives of the victims of the MH17 crash.

“I followed the process for two and a half years, all 69 hearings, so now I feel relieved, - he said after the verdict. - But most importantly, the court established Russia's role in all of this. Now we can say to politicians all over the world: what happened in the east of Ukraine, - this is true. So think before you cooperate with Russia.”

To be continued

Today it is clear that this process will not be the last court in such a case.

Even before the start of the trial, the head of the International Investigation Team, Fred Westerbeke, said that his task - "expose the whole chain - from the crew of the Buk to those who gave orders to this Buk to go on a mission on July 17, 2014.”

Westerbecke said his team has information on about 17 individuals linked to the MHXNUMX downing.

In 2019, the Dutch prosecutor's office stated that it considers Vladimir Tsemakh, who was an anti-aircraft gunner in the “DNR army” in the summer of 2014, as a suspect in this case. He was arrested by the Ukrainian security forces, and later, despite the protests of the Dutch prosecutors, he was extradited to Russia in a prisoner exchange.

Recently, the name of a possible high-ranking defendant in the MH17 case became known - he turned out to be the current first deputy head of the border service of the Federal Security Service of Russia, Andrei Burlaka.

It is known that last year the Netherlands sent a request to Russia for the opportunity to interview the commander of the 53rd air defense brigade of the Russian Armed Forces, Colonel Sergei Muchkaev. According to investigators, on July 17, 2014, the Buk of this particular brigade ended up in the field. But the Russian Ministry of Justice refused to comply with the request.

In addition, the MH17 crash is the subject of consideration in a number of courts and arbitrations around the world, both at the interstate level and at the level of civil claims.

The fate of the defendants

The verdict in the MH17 case was read out in the absence of all four defendants.

Three of them refused to cooperate with the court. Oleg Pulatov was the only one who agreed to participate in the process. And although he never came to the meetings, he was represented by lawyers. Pulatov sent several videos with his participation.

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In the last word, Pulatova's lawyer stated that her client was not provided with the right to the presumption of innocence.

Igor Girkin has recently gained a reputation as a well-known military blogger who criticized the insufficiently radical approach of the Russian authorities to the war in Ukraine. 

Now he, presumably, himself participates in hostilities. He commented sparingly on the accusation against himself, limiting himself to statements that "his people did not shoot down the plane."

Sergey Dubinsky also denies his involvement in the tragedy.

Leonid Kharchenko did not comment on the plane crash. Now he has received Russian citizenship and no longer lives in the Donbass.

Russia offered to hold the trial of three convicts with Russian citizenship on its territory, but this request was denied. Its representatives have repeatedly called the process taking place in Amsterdam politicized and one-sided.

Dutch prosecutors believe that the physical absence of the accused in court today does not mean that they will never face real punishment.

“We have doubts that the defendants will serve their sentences, since Russia does not extradite its citizens. But no one knows what the future brings, and we, for our part, will make every effort to arrest them, ”the prosecutor assured at one of the court sessions.

As ForumDaily wrote earlier:

  • A Boeing MH-17 was shot down over Ukrainian territory in July 2014. There were 283 passengers and 15 crew members on board a Malaysia Airlines passenger plane en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. When parsing the wreckage, rescuers did not find any survivors.
  • The international investigation team concluded that the liner was shot down by a surface-to-air missile launched from the Buk anti-aircraft missile system near the village of Snezhnoye.
  • According to the findings of the investigation team, the Buk launcher from which the plane was shot down was delivered to Ukraine from Russia.
  • Moscow denies any involvement in the downing of MH17 and puts forward various, often mutually exclusive, versions of the fault of the Ukrainian military.
  • In September 2016, the Russian Ministry of Defense provided its data on the crash, stating that the missile from the Buk complex was not launched from the Snezhnoye area, which was under the control of the “DPR”.
  • In 2019 year International Investigation Team (JIT) names four people for the first time, suspected of involvement in the crash of a Boeing shot down over Donbass in July 2014.
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