MH17: prosecutors to identify suspects and file first charges

Inquiry expected to name first four suspects over downing of flight that killed 298 in 2014

Dutch prosecutors are to identify suspects and file the first criminal charges over the 2014 downing of flight MH17 over east Ukraine which killed 298 people in the worst atrocity in five years of war between Ukraine and Russia-backed separatists.

The charges are likely to target members of a Russia-backed separatist movement and may include Russian service personnel who commanded or helped transport the anti-aircraft missile system used to bring down the plane.

The charges will raise tensions with Russia, which is unlikely to turn over its citizens, especially those in uniform, to stand trial in a foreign country or at the international criminal court. Russia’s constitution forbids the extradition of its citizens.

The Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team (JIT) is to present new evidence in the MH17 investigation on Wednesday, and is expected to name its first four suspects in the case.

The JIT previously alleged the surface-to-air missile that brought down the plane belonged to the Russian armed forces and had been supplied by the country’s 53rd anti-aircraft brigade in Kursk. Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, disregarded those findings, saying the investigation “did not inspire confidence” and that “several versions” of events existed.

Ukraine’s foreign ministry on Tuesday confirmed that criminal charges would be brought against the suspects named in the JIT’s presentation.

“The names will be announced. Charges will be brought. After that, the criminal court of Schiphol will start working to consider this case,” Ukraine’s deputy minister of foreign affairs, Olena Zerkal, told the news agency Interfax-Ukraine.

“They are only the top. Naturally, then, the number of people who are involved in this will be much larger than the four people who will be named.”

The news agency said Zerkal believed the charges could target “senior officers” in the Russian army because the transfer of a surface-to-air missile system “is impossible without the top brass’s permission”.

The charges are likely to be brought in the Netherlands because the majority of the passengers onboard the Boeing 777 flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur were Dutch. According to official information, the Malaysia Airlines plane was carrying 193 Dutch, 43 Malaysian, 38 Australian, 12 Indonesian and 10 British passengers, as well as one from New Zealand.

The investigative collective Bellingcat, which gathered and analysed open-source data about the attack, will also make a presentation on Wednesday identifying “separatists involved in the downing of MH17”.

Bellingcat has written extensively about the case. Last year it identified one of those allegedly involved as Oleg Ivannikov, a career officer in the Russian military intelligence agency, the GRU, who operated undercover in rebel-controlled Luhansk in eastern Ukraine under the cover names “Orion” and “Andrey Ivanovich”, the website said.

The downing of the jet came in the early months of a war between Ukraine’s army and Russia-backed separatists that has left more than 13,000 people dead. While Ukraine’s army held air superiority in the conflict, separatist forces mysteriously began shooting down Ukrainian jet fighters and troop transports, and Russia was suspected of providing them with anti-aircraft missile systems.

Pro-separatist websites initially welcomed the downing of MH17, believing the plane to be an An-26 troop transport, before realising a passenger jet had been targeted.

A Dutch news programme, Nieuwsuur, has named several MH17 suspects, including Sergei Muchkaev, commander of the 53rd anti-aircraft brigade in Kursk, and several alleged members of GRU. It is unclear if they will be among the suspects identified on Wednesday.

Dutch authorities have revealed few details about the announcement. The chief prosecutor, Fred Westerbeke, wrote to relatives of the victims last week and invited them to a briefing on Wednesday in Nieuwegein, near Utrecht. The JIT said it would inform them about the latest developments in the criminal case, Westerbeke said.

The closed meeting for family members will take place before a press conference at 1pm. The short notice was due to the “importance of secrecy”, Westerbeke told the relatives.


Andrew Roth in Moscow and Luke Harding in London

The GuardianTramp

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