A court in the Netherlands on Thursday convicted three men in absentia of mass murder for their role in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, which crashed in eastern Ukraine in 2014, killing all 298 passengers and crew on board.
The three men, two Russians and one Ukrainian, were given life sentences. They are currently thought to be in Russia or fighting alongside invading Russian forces in Ukraine.
The Boeing 777 was traveling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it was shot down on July 17, 2014, in the early months of the war between Russian-backed rebels and Ukrainian forces in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.
The bodies of the passengers and crew were strewn alongside the smoldering wreckage in the sunflower fields around the tiny village of Hrabove, close to the Russian border.
The victims, mostly Dutch, were from 17 countries. They included 80 children.
Fragments of the Russian-made missile that struck the plane were painstakingly recovered by international investigators. Prosecutors said the missile was fired from rebel-held territory.
The trial began in March 2020. Three individuals were found guilty of mass murder by procuring the Buk missile launcher from Russia to shoot down the plane: Igor Girkin, a former colonel in the Russian Federal Security Service, or FSB; his deputy, Sergey Dubinskiy; and Ukrainian national Leonid Kharchenko.
The presiding judge, Hendrik Steenhuis, announced the verdict at the court close to Amsterdam’s Schipol airport.
“Suspects Girkin, Dubinskiy and Kharchenko are convicted, and the court qualifies the facts, which are considered to be proven, as conspiring to purposefully and illegally bring down an airplane which was known to be causing mortal danger to people and the fact that it caused someone’s death, and for co-perpetration of multiple counts of murder, namely 298 counts,” Steenhuis told the court.
The judge also said the intended target may have been a military aircraft.
A fourth suspect, Russian national Oleg Pulatov – the only one to have offered a defense in the trial via Dutch lawyers – was cleared of all charges.
Relief for relatives
For relatives of the victims, there was some relief at the guilty verdicts. “I feel like the process has come to an end, and it's been very fair and it's been meticulous and it's been thorough, and the evidence has been weighed. And I feel like – for those who want to hear – the truth is out there,” said Australian national Meryn O'Brien, whose son Jack, 25, was on board MH17.
None of the convicted men was present at the trial. Nevertheless, the trial served a vital purpose, said Marieke de Hoon, an associate professor of international criminal law at the University of Amsterdam who has been closely following the court proceedings.
"There won't be a sense of perfect justice with people being convicted and also going to jail,” de Hoon told VOA. “But there are also so many other aspects or functions of law and legal procedures. And a very important one is acknowledgement of the next of kin in knowing what actually happened to [the victims], and fighting the denial of Russia.”
Justice may eventually be delivered.
“Even though it's unlikely that they'll be inside of a prison anytime soon, that doesn't mean that they might not later, when a regime change in Russia would occur. They might actually no longer be protected,” de Hoon said.
None of the suspects is alleged to have actually fired the missile. Prosecutors said the Buk launcher and its crew came from a Russian military base and returned there after the plane was shot down.
The judges heard evidence of tapped communications among the suspects, reviewed forensic evidence from the site, and saw a reconstruction of the missile launcher’s journey through Russia and Ukraine pieced together from videos and accounts on social media.
Russia denies any involvement in the downing of MH17 and has repeatedly put forward other false claims, including that Ukraine shot down the airliner.
Responding to Thursday’s guilty verdict, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement: “Throughout the trial, the court experienced unprecedented pressure from Dutch politicians, representatives of the prosecutor’s office, and media, which were pushing for a politically biased outcome.”
De Hoon said the trial has added relevance following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this year. “Setting the record straight is very important for the next of kin, but also for Ukraine now in this current conflict. It's helping them fight the false narratives by Russia,” she told VOA.
De Hoon added that Thursday’s verdict would impact another trial at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, which is looking at the Russian state’s support for Ukrainian separatists and its role in the downing of MH17.
“This is yet another step in the pursuit of truth and justice for the victims and their loved ones,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said after Thursday’s verdict.
Writing on Twitter, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also welcomed the verdict.
“Holding to account masterminds is crucial, too, as the feeling of impunity leads to new crimes. We must dispel this illusion. Punishment for all atrocities then & now is inevitable,” he wrote.
Farhan Haq, a spokesperson for U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, said Thursday, “Today’s decision marks an important milestone in the search for truth and justice for the 298 victims and their families.”
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the verdict marked an important day for justice and accountability.
“There can be no impunity for such crimes. My thoughts are with the families and loved ones of the 298 innocent victims,” he wrote on Twitter.
Russia’s denials have prolonged the suffering of relatives, according to Piet Ploeg, the chairman of the MH17 organization representing the families of the dead.
“They've had a lot of misery in the past eight years. They heard a lot of things they didn't want to hear. They are grieving, of course, of the loss of their loved ones. You’ve seen families who are torn apart, marriages who crashed, people who lost their jobs and their companies as a result of MH17. So, I hope the moment that they can start finding peace will be near,” Ploeg told The Associated Press.
Silene and Rob Fredriksz's son Bryce, 23, and his girlfriend, Daisy Oehlers, were traveling on Flight MH17 for a dream vacation in Bali.
“Sometimes I still think they come home. I still think it's not possible that they're gone. It's simply not possible,” Silene told AP. “And when we walk on the streets, sometimes you see a girl with long, black hair from behind – 'it is Daisy'! Or a boy with a cap, walking a bit like this. And then they go.”
Bryce’s father, Rob, experiences similar flashbacks. “Sometimes when you are alone, you hear them. ‘Pop, Pop. Dad, Dad.’ And then you remember that this [is] fake. But you feel it … . It's always with you. Whatever you do. We can laugh, we can do nice things, we can have fun. But there's always that feeling inside you."