Dutch court finds two Russians, one Ukrainian separatist guilty over downing of flight MH17

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A Dutch court on Thursday found two Russians and a separatist Ukrainian guilty of mass murder for their involvement in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014.

Igor Girkin, a former colonel of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), and Sergey Dubinskiy, who was employed by Russia’s military intelligence agency GRU, were convicted along with Ukrainian separatist Leonid Kharchenko, who had no military background but is believed to have led a combat unit in Donetsk in July 2014.

The three were sentenced to life in prison but as the convictions were handed down in absentia, none of them are likely to serve their sentences.

A fourth suspect, Russian national Oleg Pulatov, a former soldier of the Russian special forces Spetsnaz-GRU, was acquitted.

The verdict was read out in a highly-secured courtroom near Schiphol Airport in the Netherlands Thursday afternoon.

MH17 was on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur on July 17, 2014, when it was shot out of the sky over territory held by pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.

All 298 people on board were killed in the incident, including 15 crew members and 283 passengers from 17 countries. The downing of the jet happened in the early phase of a conflict between pro-Russia separatists and Ukrainian forces, the precursor to today’s war.

The court believes that those who fired the Buk missile believed they were targeting a military aircraft.

International investigators said that the plane was hit by a Russian Buk missile fired from a village in eastern Ukraine that was held at the time by pro-Russian rebels. Prosecutors said the launcher belonged to Russia’s 53rd anti-aircraft missile brigade and was returned to Russian territory the day after the strike. Moscow has repeatedly denied any responsibility for the incident.

The Dutch court’s verdict in the two-year trial marks the first time that independent judgment has been passed on the 2014 incident. The suspects refused to take part in the trial, which was held at the Schiphol Judicial Complex in Badhoevedorp, the Netherlands.

It comes nearly nine months after Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and weeks after Moscow sought to illegally annex four Ukrainian regions, including the area where prosecutors say the missile that brought down MH17 was fired from eight years earlier. It also comes two days after a missile landed in Poland, raising fears that Russia’s assault on Ukraine could spill over into neighboring countries.

Presiding judge Hendrik Steenhuis, who delivered the verdict on Thursday, said the court found that the Russian-made Buk missile that brought down MH17 was fired from an agricultural field near the village of Pervomaiskyi and that Russia was in control of the separatists at the time of the incident.

The court found that there was insufficient evidence to determine who launched the Buk missile, and that the crew likely believed they were firing at a military aircraft, not a passenger jet.

But the court said the firing of the missile was a premeditated act intended to bring down a plane, and that it would have been “crystal clear” to the crew that no one on board any targeted aircraft would survive.

Presiding judge Hendrik Steenhuis, fourth from right, speaks during the verdict session of MH17 trial at Schiphol airport, near Amsterdam, Netherlands, November 17, 2022.

The court also ruled that since the defendants were not entitled to combat immunity because they were not official parties to the conflict, they were not allowed to shoot down any aircraft, military or civilian.

Steenhuis cited a range of evidence for the court’s decision and ruled out any alternative explanations for the incident.

The evidence reviewed by the court included including fragments of a Buk missile found embedded in the aircraft and the bodies of some of the victims, along with videos and images showing a Buk system being moved into eastern Ukraine from Russia and then back into Russian territory following the downing of the plane.

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