More than eight years after flight MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine, the judge will deliver the verdict this afternoon from 1.30pm. Four suspects have been charged with the murder of the 298 residents, including 196 Dutch.
“The atmosphere is very tense,” says chairman Piet Ploeg of Stichting Vliegramp MH17. He himself lost his brother, sister-in-law and cousin. “People have been looking forward to this day for eight years. It is a hugely important milestone in the pursuit of truth and justice.”
Three Russians and a Ukrainian are on trial. They would have played a coordinating role in deciding whether and where to deploy a Buk missile. They would also have ensured that the weapon left the country after the disaster.
‘thrown to arms’
The conflict, which culminated in open war between Ukraine and Russia last February, was in 2014 another struggle for independence for the Donbas region supported by Moscow. Near the town of Marinovka, the rebels were under heavy fire and were pushing for reinforcements, according to phone calls intercepted by Ukraine.
“We are being thrown into the arms here,” says one of the suspects, Battalion Chief Kharchenko. “It’s just a mess,” replies his superior Dubinsky, who is also indicted. A third suspect, Pulatov, believes that longer-range anti-aircraft defenses are necessary to bring down Ukrainian planes at higher altitudes.
Around the time flight MH17 takes off from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur on July 17, 2014, the Buk installation will arrive at the front.
Ukrainian Kharchenko and the Russians Dubinsky and Pulatov stand trial with the Russian Girkin, then separatist defense minister:
The fact that there was a war situation in the area is irrelevant to the prosecution. “It was a war that they should not have been fighting there. They were not regular soldiers,” a spokesman said earlier. “They must be tried as ordinary citizens and they must not commit violence.”
OM is still investigating who else was involved in the attack. None of these four actually pressed the start button on the Buk. It is also not known who sent the missile to eastern Ukraine. Ploeg says that it is especially important for the surviving relatives to find out what role Russia played. It is expected to become clear early next year whether more charges will follow.
Today, the judge at the court at Schiphol will announce whether these four actually played a coordinating role in the attack. To do this, it must be proven that it was indeed a Russian Buk that shot down MH17 and that it was fired from rebel territory. All four have been sentenced to life in prison.
No suspects involved
The suspects say it was not a fair trial. Girkin does not recognize its legitimacy and spoke of a “so-called court”. Dubinsky replied that “the guilty had already been identified in advance” and Pulatov believes that a conviction is more important than the truth in court.
None of the suspects appeared at Schiphol, only Poelatov was represented in court. His lawyers asked for an acquittal, calling it worrying that “there is hardly any question of the prosecution’s conclusions”.
The defense argued that public opinion has been influenced by the global attention the research team’s presentations have received. The lawyers especially hoped that the court “still has room for doubt”.
For the lawyers, the interceptions are, for example, no proof at all that there was a Buk in the area. The separatists knew they were being eavesdropped and therefore used disinformation to scare the Ukrainians off, it is said. Pulatov said he did not even know the rebels had access to such a weapons system.
They also question statements from witnesses who say they followed the track of the Buk. According to the lawyers, it was not at all possible from the ground. The defense was also unable to properly test the statements because witnesses, including some separatists, remained anonymous for security reasons.
The lawyers also wanted to do more research into alternative scenarios, such as the hypothesis that it was a Ukrainian missile. The Joint Investigation Team also examined these alternative scenarios and systematically rejected them. OM claimed in court that Russia was conducting a disinformation campaign to create as much confusion as possible and to undermine confidence in the investigation.
If someone is actually convicted, the court can also award compensation of up to 50,000 euros to survivors. During the trial, three weeks were set aside for victim statements: almost a hundred people made use of this.
The prosecution and the suspects can appeal the sentence. It is possible up to two weeks after it has become clear that the verdict is known to the absent suspects. If that happens, a new judgment will not be available for about two years.
It is unlikely that the four will ever be stuck. Russia called the investigation a bogus case, and the country does not extradite any citizens.
According to Professor of International Law Marieke de Hoon, the fact that there is a lot of international attention to the process is due not only to sympathy for the disaster itself. There is also a fundamental issue of the conflict in Ukraine on the table.
“Since 2014, Ukraine has said that Russia was involved in the conflict in eastern Ukraine and is committing all kinds of crimes there. The Dutch criminal court will not say anything explicitly about Russia, because it is a criminal case against four people. But if these people are found guilty, judge says Buk came from Russia. It acknowledges what Ukraine has already said.”
Even after a verdict, the survivors will never be able to completely put the MH17 disaster behind them, emphasizes Ploeg. “If you’ve lost your children, you’ll never be able to close it, but I believe this gives relatives space to distance themselves from MH17 and all the information that’s coming their way. I would give it to them.”