Three Russians and one Ukrainian to face MH17 murder charges

Four named as first to be charged over death of 298 people on flight downed over Ukraine

Four suspects will face murder charges for the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, three of them Russians, international investigators have said, with a trial due to start next March in the Netherlands.

Almost five years after the plane was downed over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people onboard, prosecutors said on Wednesday there was enough evidence to bring criminal charges.

The suspects were named as Igor Girkin, a former colonel of Russia’s FSB spy service; Sergey Dubinskiy, employed by Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency; and Oleg Pulatov, a former soldier with the GRU’s special forces spetsnaz unit. All were Russian soldiers previously sent abroad.

A fourth suspect, Leonid Kharchenko, is a Ukrainian. He led a military combat unit in the city of Donetsk as a commander, it was alleged.

Girkin was minister of defence in the Moscow-backed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR). He was the commander of the DNR when the plane was shot down on 17 July 2014. Dubinskiy served as Girkin’s deputy in the DNR, and Pulatov was Dubinskiy’s deputy. Kharchenko was under their command.

Investigators said the soldiers “formed a chain linking the DNR with the Russian Federation”. This link was how the separatists obtained heavy equipment from Russia including the Buk launcher, which was used to fire at MH17 with “terrible consequences”.

The accused did not “push the button” themselves but were responsible for bringing the anti-aircraft system to eastern Ukraine, it was alleged. They could therefore be held criminally liable for the murders of 298 people, investigators said, adding that international arrest warrants had been issued.

Wednesday’s announcement puts the Netherlands and the international community in confrontation with Moscow. The three Russian suspects are believed to be living inside Russian territory and the Kremlin refuses to extradite its nationals. There is little prospect Girkin, Dubinskiy and Pulatov will appear in court when their trial begins on 9 March next year.

The Dutch chief prosecutor, Fred Westerbeke, said it was not clear how the court would tackle a trial in absentia, saying a “mechanism” had yet to be worked out. Kharchenko, the Ukrainian, is believed to be hiding in the rebel-controlled Donetsk region, beyond the reach of Dutch law, he said.

The Buk

Westerbeke was scathing about the Kremlin’s alleged role. He said its refusal to cooperate with the Dutch-led inquiry amounted to a “slap in the face” to the families of the victims.

“We now have proof Russia was involved in this tragedy, this crime. One day after 17 July [2014] they were in a position to tell us exactly what happened. They knew. The Buk was used in eastern Ukraine and they knew this. They didn’t give us this information.”

Russia has vehemently denied all involvement in the shooting down of MH17. On Wednesday, it complained of being excluded from the investigation despite “proactively” trying to be involved.

“You know our attitude towards this investigation. Russia had no opportunity to take part in it even though it showed initiative from ... the very first days of this tragedy,” President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters.

Reached by Whatsapp messenger, Dubinsky said he had seen the accusations and had no intention of participating in the trial.

“I don’t believe in the objectivity of this investigation,” he said. “Let them say what they will.” He said he would not give testimony either in the Netherlands or from Russia, adding: “I don’t see any point.”

Westerbeke said his team was still seeking new leads. He said he wanted to know about the chain of command in Russia and about the individual soldiers from the 53rd anti-aircraft missile brigade who crewed the Buk launcher and travelled with it from its base in the Russian city of Kursk to Ukrainian territory.

The investigators revealed a social chat between one of the soldiers and a woman called “Anastasia” on Russia’s VK website. The soldier grumbled about his “first lieutenant” and said he was being sent in a convoy to a “secret location in the west” – Ukraine.

Several intercepted phone calls were played. In one, Girkin allegedly told Sergey Aksyonov, Moscow’s new leader in Crimea, that he urgently needed heavy weapons deliveries from Russia. The call took place on 11 July 2014. This was days before the Buk was secretly shipped across the border, Westerbeke said.

Another phone call allegedly showed Putin’s personal adviser, Vladislav Surkov, talking with Alexander Borodai, the prime minister of the Moscow-backed DNR. Borodai specifically requested anti-aircraft missile defences to fend off a Ukrainian counter-attack, Westerbeke said.

The Dutch-led investigation reached its conclusions after interviewing witnesses, analysing satellite images, and sifting through phone calls. The area of investigation in eastern Ukraine was still inaccessible to the team, Westerbeke said, making the process difficult.

The charges were announced at a press conference in the Netherlands by the joint investigation team (JIT), which has been examining the attack. It includes investigators from Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, the Netherlands and Ukraine.

Simon Mayne, whose son Richard was one of 10 Britons killed onboard MH17, described Wednesday’s charges as “brilliant”. He said he felt angry that Russia had refused to cooperate and said it was “uplifting” that the process of law was taking its course.

Mayne also criticised Theresa May for reportedly seeking better relations with Putin, ahead of a possible meeting at the G20 in Japan later this month.

“Perhaps she should watch this press conference and remember the murder and poisoning in Salisbury and reflect that perhaps she should be trying to tighten sanctions against the Russians, not cosy up to them,” he said.

On Wednesday, the investigative website Bellingcat published new details of individuals allegedly involved in the shooting down of MH17. They include the four suspects named on Wednesday as well as other military commanders and separatist fighters.

Bellingcat’s report claims the military intelligence wing of the DNR played a key role. It was instrumental in procuring the Buk missile launcher that downed the plane, and in arranging its transport to Ukraine from Russia, and back to Russian territory, it says.

At least three of the suspects identified by Bellingcat appear to be dead or missing. They include Eduard Gilazov, missing since July 2015, Oleg Sharpov, who died in November 2014 and Sergey Povalyaev, who died in Russia in January 2016.

MH17 was travelling between Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport and Kuala Lumpur when it lost contact with air traffic control about four hours after takeoff.

It was torn apart in midair on 17 July 2014 over territory in eastern Ukraine held by pro-Russian separatists, with wreckage spread over a wide area.

The Netherlands and Australia said in May last year that they formally held Russia responsible for the disaster after the findings on the origin of the missile were announced. Of the passengers who died, 196 were Dutch and 38 Australian.

Contributor

Luke Harding

The GuardianTramp

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