- 298 passengers and crew were killed in the accident
- Court finds Russian missile downed plane
- The convicted men were fugitives, believed to be in Russia
AMSTERDAM, Nov 17 (Reuters) – Dutch judges have sentenced two Russian men and a Ukrainian man to life in prison for their involvement in the 2014 downing of flight MH17 over Ukraine, killing 298 passengers and crew. .
Ukraine welcomed the ruling, which could have implications for other court cases filed by Kiev against Russia, while Moscow called the ruling “defamatory” and said it would not extradite its citizens.
Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, which took off from Amsterdam and was bound for Kuala Lumpur, was shot down in eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014, as fighting erupted between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces, a precursor to this year’s conflict.
The verdict brought relief to family members of the victims, more than 200 of whom attended the courtroom and wiped away tears as the verdict was read.
“Only a very severe punishment is appropriate in retaliation for what the suspects did, which caused so much suffering to so many victims and so many surviving relatives,” said presiding judge Hendrik Steenhuis.
Former Russian intelligence agents Igor Girkin and Sergei Dubinsky and Ukrainian separatist leader Leonid Karchenko were all three convicted.
All three were found to have helped arrange the transfer into Ukraine of the Russian military BUK missile system used to shoot down the plane, although they were not the ones who physically pulled the trigger.
They are fugitives and are believed to be in Russia. A fourth former suspect, Russian Oleg Bulatov, was acquitted of all charges.
The incident in 2014 left plane wreckage and victims’ remains scattered across fields of corn and sunflowers.
Russia invaded Ukraine in February and claims to have annexed Donetsk province, where the plane was shot down.
“The families of the victims wanted the truth, they wanted justice done and those responsible punished, and that’s what happened. I’m very satisfied,” Piet Ploeg, who heads the foundation representing the victims, told Reuters. Ploeg’s brother, his brother’s wife and his nephew died on MH17.
Australian Meryn O’Brien, who lost her 25-year-old son Jack, said she was relieved. “Everyone was relieved that the process was over, it was very fair, and it was very careful.”
“There was no celebration,” said Jordan Withers of Britain, whose uncle Glenn Thomas died. “Nothing is going to bring back any victim.” They come from 10 different countries.
The judgment awarded damages of 16 million euros.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hailed the first sentence handed down for MH17 by the Hague tribunal as a “significant decision”.
“But those who ordered it must also end up in the dock because impunity leads to new crimes,” he wrote on Twitter. “We must dispel this illusion. Punishment for all Russian atrocities – then and now – will be inevitable.”
The ruling found that Russia had “overall control” over the forces of the Donetsk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine since mid-May 2014.
“It’s fantastic,” said Marieke de Hoon, assistant professor of international law at the University of Amsterdam. The ruling is “authoritative” and will add to Ukraine’s other international cases against Russia related to the 2014 conflict.
‘No reasonable doubt’
Judge Steenhuis said there was ample evidence from witnesses and photographs that tracked the movement of the missile system from Ukraine to Russia.
Steenhuis said there was no reasonable doubt that MH17 was shot down by a Russian missile system.
Moscow denies any involvement or responsibility in the downing of MH17 and in 2014 it denied any presence in Ukraine.
In a statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry said, “During the trial the court was under unprecedented pressure from Dutch politicians, prosecutors and the media to impose a politically motivated decision.”
“We deeply regret that the District Court in The Hague disregarded the principles of impartial justice in favor of the current political situation, thereby bringing a serious disrepute to the entire judicial system of the Netherlands,” it added.
Because more than half of the victims were Dutch, prosecutors charged the four with shooting down the plane and murder in a trial under Dutch law. Telephone intercepts, which formed a key part of the evidence, said the men believed they were targeting a Ukrainian fighter jet.
Even if that counts for something to lessen the seriousness of their criminal responsibility, Steenhuis said, they still had a murderous intent and the consequences of their actions were enormous.
Of the suspects, only Bulatov pleaded not guilty through the lawyers he hired to represent him. Others were tried in absentia and none showed up for trial.
The police investigation was led by the Netherlands, with participation from Ukraine, Malaysia, Australia and Belgium.
Dutch and Australian officials said Thursday’s verdict was not the final word on public accountability for MH17.
Andy Cragg, head of police investigations, said the search for more suspects was continuing up the chain of command. Investigators are also looking into the crew of the missile system that launched the deadly rocket.
The Dutch and Australian governments, which hold Russia responsible, have launched an action against the Russian Federation at the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).
Reporting by Toby Sterling, Stephanie van den Berg and Bart Meijer; Editing: John Boyle, Alex Richardson, Toby Chopra, Alexandra Hudson
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