A Dutch court has found three men guilty of the murder of 298 people onboard flight MH17, which was shot down by a Russian surface-to-air missile when it was flying over eastern Ukraine in 2014.
The court handed down sentences of life imprisonment to the Russian nationals Igor Girkin and Sergey Dubinskiy and a Ukrainian, Leonid Kharchenko, after finding them guilty of bringing down the plane and the murder of everyone onboard. They were ordered to pay “more than €16m” in compensation to the victims. The three men remain at large and it remains unclear if they will ever serve their sentences.
A third Russian national, Oleg Pulatov, was acquitted of the charges owing to lack of evidence about his role in the firing of the missile.
In 2014, all four were fighters for the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, a pro-Russia separatist movement. None of the men appeared in court and only Pulatov chose to appoint lawyers, who pleaded not guilty on his behalf.
The presiding judge, Hendrik Steenhuis, said the court had concluded that MH17 was shot down by a Russian-made BUK missile from an agricultural field in eastern Ukraine, citing extensive evidence that did not leave “any possibility for reasonable doubt whatsoever”.
The court found that Russia had overall control of the separatist forces in eastern Ukraine at the time when the plane was shot down, he said.
The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said it was an important court decision, tweeting: “Holding to account masterminds is crucial too, as the feeling of impunity leads to new crimes. We must dispel this illusion. Punishment for all [Russia’s] atrocities then & now is inevitable.”
Some relatives said they were pleased with the outcome. “We are very pleased that justice has been done,” said Piet Ploeg, the chair of the MH17 Aviation Disaster Foundation, which spoke on behalf of relatives.
Ploeg lost a brother, sister-in-law and nephew in the crash. “The truth has been established, which is important for all relatives, but also from an international perspective,” he told the Dutch national broadcaster NOS. He also said it was important that the judge had spoken openly about Russia’s role in the conflict and the disaster.
The verdict caps a 32-month trial that began in March 2020 in a secure courtroom at Schiphol airport, from where flight MH17 took off on 17 July 2014 bound for Kuala Lumpur.
Only a few hours into the flight, a missile exploded just above and to the left of the cockpit, causing the plane to break up in midair, according to an international investigation. Everyone onboard was killed.
The victims came from 17 countries and included 198 Dutch nationals, 43 Malaysians, 38 Australians and 10 from the UK. They were from all walks of life: families with children, young couples and retirees on the holiday of a lifetime, teenagers celebrating the end of exams, professionals heading to conferences, a nun, a shipping worker going home. Eighty of the victims were children.
The Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, said: “This is yet another step in the pursuit of truth and justice for the victims and their loved ones. And important as this verdict is, it is not the final conclusion … It is not the end. All parties will have the right to appeal, so the judgment is not yet final. But to reiterate, an important step has been taken today.”
During the trial, relatives of the victims gave testimony to the court, in person and through video link, of their overwhelming grief and how their lives changed for ever when they found out their loved one had been onboard MH17.
Parents and uncles mourned children that would never go to school or graduate from college; others gave vivid family portraits of siblings and parents, their personalities, hobbies and dreams for the future. Many recounted the trauma of visiting the morgue to identify their relative’s body. Others told of the painful dawning reality that only a few bone fragments, or no remains at all, would be recovered.
Many relatives spoke of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, haunting dreams and physical illnesses they had experienced after the trauma of the violent death of one or several relatives. “We lost joy in living,” one told the court, while another spoke of “mental torture for the rest of our lives”.
Some lost the main breadwinner in their family, adding financial pressure to mental anguish. Grief was compounded, several said, by misinformation from the Russian government and refusal of the defendants to take responsibility.
Prosecutors, after the findings of an international investigation, concluded that the four men did not “press the button themselves” but were responsible for taking the BUK from Russia and deploying it on the battlefield.
The Netherlands and Australia said in 2018 that Russia was responsible for the disaster, after investigators concluded the BUK missile had come from a Russian military base.
The Kremlin has always denied any involvement, while claiming it was excluded from the investigation.
Girkin, who goes by the nom de guerre Igor Strelkov, was a commander of the separatist-backed forces in 2014. He is believed to have returned to the battlefield in Ukraine, raising slim hopes that he may be captured and eventually face justice.
He has previously said he felt “a moral responsibility” for the deaths of 298 people, but refused to admit a role in downing the jet, while criticising the legal proceedings.
Dubinskiy and Pulatov held senior roles in the Donetsk separatist forces. Dubinskiy is a former military officer of the GRU, the Russian military intelligence service, and was head of intelligence for the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. Pulatov, who was acquitted, was a former officer in the Russian spetsnaz, the special unit of Russian military intelligence. He served as one of Dubinskiy’s deputies, but the court concluded there was no proof he made any contribution to the use of the BUK.
Kharchenko was a commander of a combat unit in Donetsk and took his orders from Dubinskiy.
Girkin, Dubinskiy and Kharchenko, the three men who were found guilty, were said by the judge to have shown a “disrespectful and unnecessarily hurtful” attitude to the relatives by their comments on the legal process. “Only the highest possible prison sentence would be the appropriate punishment” for their crimes, which had caused so much grief to so many, the judge Steenhuis said.
The fatal chain of events for MH17 began to unfold on the night of 16-17 July when a BUK was smuggled across the border from Russia to Ukraine and transported to Donetsk, according to prosecutors.
As soon as Dubinskiy learned of the BUK’s arrival, he arranged with Girkin’s office for it to be transported to an arable field near the village of Pervomaisky.
Pulatov, the only one of the four to appoint lawyers, told the court through a video link that he was not guilty. “It’s important for me that my country is not blamed for this tragedy,” he said.
Prosecutors and the suspects have two weeks to appeal against the court’s decisions.