MH17 verdict: Three convicted of 298 murders in downing of aircraft

Dutch court rules the men must pay €16m in compensation

Investigators examine a piece of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 plane, near the village of Hrabove, in eastern Ukraine. AP/file
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A Dutch court on Thursday found three men guilty of 298 counts of murder in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 in 2014 and ordered them to pay more than €16 million ($16.5 million) in compensation.

Russians Igor Girkin and Sergei Dubinsky and Ukrainian citizen Leonid Kharchenko were found guilty of murder and intentionally causing an aircraft to crash, head judge Hendrik Steenhuis said.

Russian citizen Oleg Pulatov, who was the only defendent represented by lawyers, was found not guilty. None of the men attended the two-and-a-half-year trial.

The court ordered the immediate imprisonment of Mr Girkin, Mr Dubinsky and Mr Kharchenko for life-long prison sentences.

Families of victims stood weeping and wiping away tears in the courtroom as Mr Steenhuis read the verdict.

The three men are believed to be in Russia, which has repeatedly denied responsibility in the downing of the MH17. Their arrest remains unlikely.

In a briefing in Moscow, Deputy Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ivan Nechaev told reporters: "We will study this decision because in all these issues, every nuance matters. After studying the legal document, we will probably then be ready to offer a comment."

Speaking at a high-security court near Amsterdam Airport Schipol, where Flight MH17 took off on July 17, 2014, Mr Steenhuis said a Russian-made missile was used to shoot down the aircraft.

“The court is of the opinion that MH17 was brought down by the firing of a BUK missile from a farm field near Pervomaisk, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew members,” Mr Steenhuis said during a two-hour read-out that was simultaneously translated into English and Russian.

At the time, the area was the scene of fighting between pro-Russian separatist, the so-called Donetsk People's Republic (DRP), and Ukrainian forces.

The court said that the DRP was under Russian control starting mid-May 2014 and also acknowledged Russia's denials of such accusations.

Mr Steenhuis said that the three accused men did not directly fire the missile but supervised its deployment and its swift rapatriation to Russia after the incident in the hope of averting an international outcry.

Mr Girkin, 51, a former Russian spy who became the defence minister of the separatist Donetsk People's Republic, was reportedly in contact with Russia to obtain the missile system. He denied the rebels were involved in downing MH17.

Mr Dubinsky, 60, who has also been linked with Russian intelligence, allegedly served as the separatists' military intelligence chief and was responsible for giving orders about the missile.

Mr Pulatov, 56, a former Russian special forces soldier, and Mr Kharchenko, 50, who allegedly led a separatist unit, were subordinates who played a more direct role in transporting the missile, prosecutors previously said.

Mr Steenhuis added that the BUK missile arrived on the initiative of Mr Dubinsky and its transport was carried out under his direct authority. Its escort was supervised by Mr Kharchenko.

The court was not able to establish how the BUK's crew acted when the missile was fired and the file does not reveal who gave the order to launch the missile.

"But even without that specific knowledge, much can be said about the fact that the BUK was deployed," said Mr Steenhuis.

"The possibility of anybody aboard the aircraft surviving a BUK missile stike is zero," he added. "Everyone in possession of such a specialised and expensive weapon like the BUK will be fully aware of that."

Mr Steenhuis said that the missile was fired "deliberately and after some consideration" under the belief that it was a military not a civilian aircraft.

This error "does not detract from the premedited intent," he added. "A BUK missile cannot be launched by mistake."

All 298 passengers and crew were killed when the Boeing 777 flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was hit.

The plane's shooting scattered wreckage and bodies across Ukraine's famed sunflower fields and rural settlements.

The victims came from 10 countries, including 196 Dutch, 43 Malaysians and 38 Australians.

The crash caused global outrage and sanctions were imposed on Moscow.

Mr Steenhuis said that some families members had suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder that was worsened by the inaccessibility of the crash site in a war zone.

"Bodies were left in the open for weeks and even months, exposed to the elements," said Mr Steenhuis.

In some cases, only parts of their loved ones' remains could be recovered, and in two cases, they could not be recovered at all.

Mr Steenhuis also said that the people of Eastern Ukraine also had to deal with the "awful consequences" of the crash. Wreckage and body parts fell from the sky, "in some cases, literally through the roofs of their homes."

The missile was identified as coming from the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade from Kursk in Russia, the court heard.

The Dutch court decision is not the final word.

Andy Kraag, the head of the police investigation, said research was continuing into possible suspects higher in the chain of command.

Prosecutors have also not ruled out indictments against the persons who actually operated the missile launcher, though they have not been publicly identified as suspects.

Updated: November 17, 2022, 6:28 PM