Dutch prosecutors have charged four military and intelligence officers from Russia and Ukraine with murder and involvement in the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in 2014, ramping up international pressure on Moscow over the downing of the jet.
At a press conference in The Hague on Wednesday, a Dutch-led joint international investigative team (JIT) said that while the four men did not “push the button” that fired the missile that brought MH17 down, they played a significant role in the events that led to the catastrophe.
MH17 was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on July 17, 2014 when it was shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board and sparking international outrage.
Last year the JIT, made up of Dutch police and prosecutors as well as investigators from Australia, Belgium, Malaysia and Ukraine, concluded that the missile came from a Buk missile launcher provided by a Russian military unit, the 53rd anti-aircraft missile brigade.
The Netherlands is leading the investigation because 196 of the victims were Dutch citizens.
The JIT claims the missile launcher was transported across the Russian border into the Donetsk region of Ukraine, at the centre of a long-running conflict between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces, before being moved back into Russian territory.
The JIT has now charged four men: Igor Girkin, a former colonel in the Russian intelligence service, the FSB; Sergey Dubinskiy and Oleg Pulatov, two former agents of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency; and Leonid Kharchenko, a Ukrainian national who the JIT said served as a field commander for Russian-backed forces in the Donetsk region.
The JIT added that at the time of the downing of the jet, Mr Girkin was serving as the minister of defence for the Moscow-backed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR). It said he was the highest ranking military officer in the region and “in regular contact with Russia”.
“Through this chain of command the Buk could be transported to the field in Ukraine and fired with terrible consequences,” the Dutch prosecutor Fred Westerbeke said.
“The suspects wanted to shoot down a military aircraft and not a civilian flight. Regardless of that we will still hold them responsible,” he added.
Although prosecutors said international arrest warrants had been sent out for the four suspects and a trial date was set for March next year in the Netherlands, they conceded the four men were unlikely to hand themselves over to face the claims.
Under the Russian constitution its citizens cannot be extradited to foreign jurisdictions to face criminal prosecution. The JIT also expressed doubts that it would be able to bring Mr Kharchenko to justice because they believed he was living in the DNR.
Mr Girkin wrote on VK, a Russian social media platform: “The rebels didn’t shoot down the Boeing.” The former warlord denied to comment further on the charges, including whether Russia was responsible for firing the missile. Mr Girkin said in 2017 that the rebels “lacked the equipment that could have shot down” the plane.
Russia’s foreign ministry said the JIT’s accusations were “aimed at discrediting the Russian Federation in the eyes of the international community” and was using “poorly thought through notions, some of which were devised through using dubious sources of information”.
The ministry added that Russia was “highly interested in establishing the truth” and accused the JIT of rejecting evidence it submitted to the tribunal, including data suggesting the Buk came from Ukraine, and a bizarre experiment recreating the crash by Almaz-Antei, the Buk’s manufacturer, which Russia says showed the missile was fired from Ukraine-controlled territory.
Russia also accused Ukraine of using its JIT membership to falsify evidence.
The JIT said repeated efforts to get answers from Moscow over its involvement in the shooting down of MH17 had failed.
“We are open to a direct response from the suspects,” said Mr Westerbeke. “If they wish to explain directly to the JIT their role we would like to hear it.”
He admitted, however: “I am a realist, meaning that I don’t think the odds are on our side. We appeal to the suspects to note down the time and date for the criminal trial. It will take place even when the suspects choose not to be present.”
Peter Crozier, assistant commissioner of the Australian Federal Police, said the charges followed “one of the most complex criminal investigations ever to be conducted”.
The JIT said a team of 50 detectives had reduced the number of suspects from about 100 to an undisclosed smaller number using forensic investigation, interrogation of witnesses and analysis of satellite imagery and telephone and online communications data.
But it appealed for further information and for more witnesses to come forward. The JIT played extracts from an intercepted phone call between Ukrainian commander Mr Kharchenko and an unidentified member of the crew it believes transported the Buk launcher across the Russian border into eastern Ukraine.
Ahead of the charges being announced the UK-based investigative website Bellingcat published the names of “key individuals who had a role in organising or facilitating the transport of the Buk missile launcher”. It said many were members of the DNR GRU, the military intelligence agency of the Donetsk People’s Republic, which was technically independent from Russia’s GRU but likely “actually controlled in whole or in part” by Moscow. At least three of them are dead, according to the report.
UK foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt welcomed the JIT’s announcement and called on Russia to accept state responsibility for the MH17 attack.
“The Russian Federation must now co-operate fully with the prosecution and provide any assistance it requests,” Mr Hunt said.
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