Prosecutors in the Netherlands are bringing criminal charges against four men linked to the downing of flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014, which left hundreds dead marked a turning point in the war in eastern Ukraine.
The three Russians and one Ukrainian, who were independently identified by the Bellingcat online investigative outfit in a report published on Wednesday, will be charged under Dutch law with causing the crash of MH17 and murdering all 298 passengers and crew on board.
The Russians, Igor “Strelkov” Girkin, Sergey Dubinsky, Oleg Pulatov and Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko were said by prosecutors during a press conference in the Netherlands on Wednesday to have involved by international investigators “beyond reasonable doubt.”
But because the men are currently living in Russia and a separatist-held part of Ukraine, they are unlikely to face justice. Russia, which denies any responsibility, is unlikely to cooperate the Dutch-led criminal investigation and the country’s legal system prohibits the extradition of its citizens to face trial abroad.
Members of the Dutch-led Joint Investigation Committee (JIT) said they will not call on Russia or Ukraine to extradite the suspects because neither country allows their citizens to face trial abroad. However, the investigators called on the suspects to note that the trial will begin on March 9, 2020, and said they would be tried in absentia if they fail to attend the proceedings.
Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was en route to Kuala Lumpur from Amsterdam on July 24, 2014 when it was shot down over rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 on board. The JIT probing the incident and online research collective Bellingcat have previously said that Russian-backed separatists were responsible.
The Boeing 777 was carrying 193 Dutch, 43 Malaysian, 38 Australian, 12 Indonesian and 10 British citizens and one person from New Zealand when it was brought down at a time of intense fighting between the Ukrainian army and separatist fighters in two breakaway republics.
The JIT, which is comprised of investigators from Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, the Netherlands and Ukraine, has said the BUK missile system which they say shot down the passenger jet came from the Russian 53rd Anti-Aircraft Brigade, based in the western Russian city of Kursk.
On Wednesday, Bellingcat said that all three Russian suspects had been employed by the intelligence services and had served abroad in the Russian military. Mr Kharchenko had no previous military background.
In their new report, the open-source investigators described Igor Girkin, one of the Russians charged, as Minister of Defense of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and a former official in the FSB at the time of the tragedy in 2014.
“Since most of the separatists who can be linked to the downing of MH17 were his subordinates,” the report says, “it is likely that he was also fully aware of the procurement and import of the Buk from Russia.”
According to Bellingcat, Sergei Dubinsky was the head of the military intelligence agency of the Donetsk People’s Republic in 2014 and a subordinate of Girkin. Ukrainian officials have alleged Mr Dubinsky was also a member of Russia’s military intelligence. The online investigators said leaked phone conversations suggest intelligence chief was responsible for the transport of the Buk missile system to and from Ukrainian territory.
News that investigators are opening criminal proceedings has been welcomed by the victims’ families, who have struggled to win the cooperation of Russian authorities on repatriating the remains of relatives and loved ones.
After family members were briefed on the charges, Silene Fredriksz, whose son and daughter-in-law were killed in the disaster, told reporters,
"I am happy that the trial is finally going to start and that the names have been announced. It's a start. I'm satisfied."
Last year Russian President Vladimir Putin described the downing of MH17 as a "terrible tragedy" but denied that Moscow was to blame, adding that there are other explanations for what happened. In recent years, the Kremlin has offered a wide array of sometimes contradictory theories with scant evidence.
Officials in Moscow insisted last year that the missile was fired by Kiev's forces, adding that it was sent to Ukraine in the Soviet era and had not been returned to Russia.
"Russia was unable to take part in the investigation despite expressing an interest right from the start and trying to join it,'' Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters earlier on Wednesday.
Flight MH17 was shot down during an intense period of fighting early on in Ukraine’s conflict with Russian-backed separatists, a war which began following a series of street protests in Kiev that led to the overthrow of then-president Viktor Yanukovich.
The West responded to Russia’s role in the conflict and its annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014 by imposing tough economic sanctions on Moscow. Some 13,000 people have since been killed in the fighting, which has seen relations between Western leaders and Vladimir Putin plummet.
Asked if she personally blamed anyone for the crash that killed her son and daughter-in-law, Ms Fredriksz said: "Mr [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. Because he made this possible. He created this situation. He is the main responsible person."