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3 men convicted of murder, sentenced to life in 2014 downing of jet in east Ukraine

Reconstructed wreckage of downed airliner
Judges and lawyers view the reconstructed wreckage of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 at a military air base in the southern Netherlands.
(Peter Dejong / Pool Photo)
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A Dutch court Thursday convicted two Russians and a pro-Moscow Ukrainian separatist in absentia of the murders of 298 people who died in the 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine, and sentenced them to life imprisonment. One Russian was acquitted for lack of evidence.

Against the geopolitical upheaval caused by Russia’s full-blown invasion of Ukraine, the court also held that Moscow had overall control of the separatist so-called Donetsk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine, from where it said the attack was launched.

Presiding Judge Hendrik Steenhuis said that evidence presented by prosecutors at a trial that lasted more than two years proved that the Boeing 777 flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was brought down by a Buk missile fired by pro-Moscow Ukrainian rebels July 17, 2014. The crash scattered wreckage and bodies over farmland and fields of sunflowers.

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In the courtroom, some of the victims’ relatives blinked away tears as Steenhuis highlighted how their lives were changed forever that day. Hundreds of relatives had traveled to the court to hear the verdict.

Steenhuis described the torment of family members who had to wait for the remains of the dead: “A piece of bone from a hand. A piece of leg or a foot. In two cases, no parts of a loved one returned.”

The three convicted men, who have two weeks to file an appeal, did not attend their trial in a tightly guarded courtroom on the edge of Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, from where the doomed airliner left. Outside the court, planes could be heard taking off and landing nearby on a cold, gray day.

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There had been fears that the weight of evidence was impressive but would not necessarily lead to convictions. Steenhuis, however, cited extremely detailed evidence showing where the Buk was fired from, the burns it left on a field, and how it moved around eastern Ukraine. He also went into deep detail on the roles of the defendants.

“There is plentiful evidence” to support the theory that the missile was shot from the field in rebel-held territory, Steenhuis said.

“There is no reasonable doubt possible,” he added, dismissing defense arguments that something else might have happened to the plane.

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The court found that the three men — Russians Igor Girkin and Sergey Dubinsky and Ukrainian separatist Leonid Kharchenko — worked together to bring the Buk missile system from a Russian military base into Ukraine and place it in position for its launch.

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Even if the shooting down of Flight 17 was a military miscalculation, Steenhuis said, “such an error did not change the intent.”

None of the four defendants appeared for the trial, which began in March 2020, and it’s unlikely the three convicted will serve any sentence anytime soon.

“The truth on the table — that is the most important thing,” Anton Kotte, who lost his son, daughter-in-law and his 6-year-old grandson, said before Thursday’s hearing. He said the hearing
was a “D-day” for relatives.

Robbert van Heijningen, who lost his brother, sister-in-law and nephew, called the downing “an act of barbarism” that he could never put behind him, regardless of the verdict.

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“I call it a stone in my heart, and stones ... don’t disappear,” he said.

The most senior defendant to be convicted was Igor Girkin, a 51-year-old former colonel in Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB. At the time of the downing, he was defense minister and commander of the armed forces of the breakaway Donetsk republic. Girkin reportedly is involved in Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Also convicted were Girkin’s subordinates, Dubinskiy and Kharchenko, a Ukrainian who prosecutors say was commander of a pro-Russia rebel combat unit and took orders directly from Dubinskiy.

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Russian Oleg Pulatov was acquitted, and was the only one of the suspects who was represented by defense lawyers at the trial. They accused prosecutors of “tunnel vision” in basing their case on the findings of an international investigation into the downing while ignoring other possible causes.

Pulatov’s defense team also sought to discredit evidence and argued that he didn’t get a fair trial.

In a video recording played in court, Pulatov said he was innocent and told judges: “What matters to me is that the truth is revealed. It’s important for me that my country is not blamed for this tragedy.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that the court’s decision was a vital first step in assigning responsibility for the crime but that more prosecutions and convictions were needed.

“It is an important decision in the court in The Hague. ... It is necessary that those who ordered it also find themselves in the dock, because impunity leads to new crimes,” he said on Twitter.

A Russian spokesman said Moscow was not prepared yet to comment on the Flight 17 convictions.

“We will study this decision. On all of these questions, every nuance has meaning. Therefore, after studying this judicial document, we will be ready to comment on it,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ivan Nechaev said.

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