A Dutch court has found three men guilty of murder for shooting down a passenger jet over eastern Ukraine in 2014, killing 298 people. On 17 July 2014, 298 people, including 80 children and 15 crew, boarded Malaysia Airlines flight 17 to Kuala Lumpur at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. The plane was cruising at 33,000 feet over Ukraine. It was the early days of Russia’s efforts to control parts of the country.
The court found that a Russian-made missile supplied from Russia and fired by an armed group under Russian control brought down flight MH17. The men – two Russians and one Ukrainian – were found guilty in absentia and sentenced to life in jail. A third Russian was acquitted. The missile attack was one of the most notorious war crimes in Ukraine before allegations of atrocities there became an almost daily reality.
Many of the victims’ relatives believe if the world had reacted differently, and taken a tougher stance against Russia eight years ago, the invasion of Ukraine and the geopolitical instability that has followed could have been avoided.
The judges ruled that it was a deliberate action to bring down a plane, even though the three found guilty had intended to shoot down a military not a civilian aircraft. Igor Girkin, the military leader of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, was convicted of deploying the missile and seeking Russian help. Sergei Dubinsky was found to have ordered and overseen the transport of the Buk missile launcher Leonid Kharchenko was found to have overseen the Buk, acting on Dubinsky’s instructions.
Oleg Pulatov was the only one of the four accused to have legal representation at the trial. The judges acquitted him, although they found he knew about the missile.
At the time this was a relatively low-level conflict zone, but fighting had recently expanded into the air. In the preceding months a number of military planes had been shot down. In response, Ukraine closed the airspace at lower altitudes – up to 32,000 feet. But planes were still crossing the country.
The Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 was flying 1,000 feet above this restricted airspace. At 13:20 GMT, it lost contact with air traffic control. Of the 298 on board from 17 countries, 196 were from the Netherlands, 43 from Malaysia, 38 from Australia and 10 from the UK. Forward to 2022 and Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine in February opened up barely healed wounds.
Russia has always denied any involvement and instead pumped out a range of alternative theories – suggesting a Ukrainian fighter jet fired the missile, or that Ukrainian government forces were responsible, and in some cases fabricated evidence to support their claims.
These have in turn been diligently debunked with material gathered by a team of international investigators, and they were rejected by the Dutch court. The team found the disintegration of the plane in mid-air was caused by the detonation of a Russian-made 9N314M-type warhead carried on the 9M38M1 missile, launched from the eastern part of Ukraine using a Buk missile system.
The trial has been an opportunity to cut through Russian disinformation. The judges rejected an alternative version of events promoted by Buk missile maker Almaz-Antey as falsified and not independently assessed.
Piecing together clues including intercepted telephone calls, eyewitness accounts and even metal fragments found in the bodies of the crew, investigators were able to establish the type of weapon, track its route – from a military barracks in Russia, across the border to the launch site in pro-Russian separatist controlled eastern Ukraine – and identify key suspects.
They are three Russians and one Ukrainian. The most prominent of them is Igor Girkin, who prosecutors say is a former colonel in Russia’s intelligence service the FSB.
The Kremlin has dismissed the legal proceedings and all suspects refused to appear in court. Only one, Oleg Pulatov, employed a team of Dutch lawyers to defend him in court. The judgment is unlikely to result in anyone serving time in jail for this mass murder, but the investigation has created an incontestable historical record and delivered the families some peace of mind.
“We will never get our children back,” Silene Fredriksz accepts, “but… we need the truth. And we need justice. This is a small part of our justice.”