MH17 crash report is set for release, but it is unlikely to offer closure

Technical report on 2014 air disaster in Ukraine will avoid ‘blame and culpability’ – though its evidence may further bolster argument Russia was involved

In a hangar at an airfield in southern Holland, a ghost has been conjured from the gloom.

Over the past nine months Dutch investigators have been fitting together pieces of recovered plane wreckage and debris. They have rebuilt part of the cockpit and business section. The plane is MH17, the Malaysia Airlines flight shot down on 17 July 2014 while flying above conflict-torn eastern Ukraine. All 298 people on board were killed.

The Dutch Safety Board will display its reconstruction for the first time at the Gilze-Rijen air base on Tuesday. It will also publish its long-awaited report into the disaster. For relatives of the passengers, two-thirds of whom were Dutch nationals – with the remaining victims from nine other countries – it is likely to give only partial answers.

The board has said its 15-month multinational investigation will not deal with “blame and culpability”. A second criminal investigation by the Dutch prosecutor’s office is due to conclude later this year or early in 2016. It is expected to answer the most politically charged question: who shot down MH17?

Rather, Tuesday’s report will offer a technical audit of the crash, and it is widely anticipated it will conclude that a Buk missile fired from a mobile launcher brought down the plane. It will stop short of saying who pulled the trigger. In its preliminary 2014 finding, the board avoided a word like “shrapnel”, blaming “a large number of high-energy objects”.

Investigators have also asked why MH17 was allowed to fly over eastern Ukraine, the scene of a conflict between pro-Russian separatists backed by Moscow, and Ukrainian government troops. Some airlines sent their planes on detours around the rebel-held cities of Donetsk and Luhansk after Ukrainian military aircraft were shot down.

The report will further consider why the Dutch authorities took two to four days before telling relatives their loved ones were dead. And it will examine whether any of the passengers may still have been alive after the missile hit their Boeing 777, flying at 33,000 feet? The plane immediately broke up, hitting the ground in numerous pieces.

MH17 flightpath

One theory suggests that the catastrophic loss of cabin pressure would have made all passengers immediately unconscious. It’s conceivable, however, that some may have regained consciousness at lower altitudes. The body of one passenger was found with an oxygen mask around his neck. The results of official autopsies on the victims remain secret.

“The public has been left in the dark,” Pieter Omtzigt, a Dutch MP said on Friday, adding that much of the primary evidence in the case was hidden. Omtzigt has asked the Dutch government to reveal if the US has shared satellite images taken at the time of the alleged launch of the Buk missile. “We still don’t have an answer,” he said.

It’s assumed that the White House, the Russians and the Chinese were intensively spying on eastern Ukraine at the time. So far, though, the US administration has stopped short of blaming Moscow directly, and has declassified only one related graphic. According to Omtzigt, Washington may be trying to conceal its surveillance capacities, or want to avoid a geopolitical escalation with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president. “Or wants to hide something on behalf of Ukraine,” he added.

Still, the evidence points strongly to Russian involvement. On Thursday, the investigative website Bellingcat published its own MH17 dossier, based on a mass of open source evidence. It includes photos of a Buk taken by witnesses hours before MH17 was hit. One appears to show a vapour trail left by a missile.

Debris from the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 lies in a field near the village of Rozsypne
Debris from the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 lies in a field near the village of Rozsypne. Photograph: Maxim Zmeyev/Reuters

Using photos posted by Russian soldiers on social media, Bellingcat tracked the Buk to the Kremlin’s 53rd anti-aircraft missile brigade. The missile launcher set off in a military convoy from Kursk, inside Russia. It crossed the Ukrainian border and then travelled from Donetsk to the city of Snizhne. There it was unloaded and drove under its own power to a nearby field. Bellingcat alleges that, at approximately 4.20pm on 17 July, it launched the surface-to-air missile that struck MH17.

On the morning of the next day, the Buk was driven from Luhansk and smuggled back across the border to Russia. Bellingcat claims to have identified the crew involved, passing the information to Dutch prosecutors.

The Kremlin, meanwhile, has blamed Kiev. It has variously suggested a Ukrainian military jet shot the Boeing down, or that a missile was launched from a government-held area. The evidence presented by Russia’s defence ministry to support these theories has been widely disputed. It includes falsely dated satellite pictures and, Bellingcat says, fabrications.

MH17 debris field

Meanwhile, the villages in the area where the plane crashed remain under separatist control. By summer this year almost all the debris had been cleared, after sitting for months in the sunflower fields. It was collected and eventually transported back to Holland. At one of the main crash sites in the village of Grabovo, a makeshift memorial of teddy bears and candles has been erected.

The topic of the crash is mainly avoided by the separatist and Russian media, despite the official line that the Ukrainian army was responsible. Over the past few months, news about MH17 has almost entirely disappeared from Russian domestic television reports.

But as the world prepares for the release of the Dutch report, there has been a renewed “information offensive” in Russia, apparently aimed at muddying the waters. The Kremlin’s English-language network Russia Today ran a story on Bellingcat’s Eliot Higgins describing him as an unqualified “clerk” whose evidence is dubious.

Almaz-Antey, the Russian defence conglomerate that manufactures Buk missile systems, says it will hold its own press conference on Tuesday. The company said it had performed an experiment in which it blew up a decommissioned Boeing, in an attempt to prove that a Russian Buk could not have been involved.

Relatives and friends of the victims of MH17 at memorial
Relatives and friends of the victims of MH17 stand in front of a memorial during a commemoration service. Photograph: Michael Kooren/EPA

Earlier, the company claimed its investigations showed the plane had been shot down by an old version of a system which the Ukrainian army has in its arsenal but which the Russian army does not, during a carefully choreographed press conference in Moscow where only selected journalists were allowed to ask questions.

In July, Russia vetoed a UN proposal to establish an international criminal tribunal which may have got to the truth. It sparked a furious response from Australia, which lost 27 of its citizens. It is unclear what legal route the Dutch authorities may now take to bring a criminal prosecution against those responsible, and to achieve closure for the families.

“The government needs to make sure there is a prosecution strategy,” Omtzigt said, adding that for a case to succeed in the international criminal court in the Hague prosecutors had to demonstrate criminal intent.

Currently the ICC has not been given jurisdiction over MH17. Holland could establish its own ad hoc court, similar to the prosecution after the Lockerbie bombing, but so far has not done so. “This is a uniquely difficult case. It isn’t a simple crime. It has immediate ramifications in the international political arena,” Omtzigt said.


Luke Harding and Shaun Walker in Moscow

The GuardianTramp

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