A Boeing was shot down with a missile over a contested area in eastern Ukraine in 2014. 298 people died. Three Russians and one Ukrainian were charged. Now the court judges.
It was a bright summer day when the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777, flight number MH17, took off from Amsterdam on July 17, 2014. 12:31 p.m. The plane exploded less than three hours later. All 298 people on board were dead.
A rocket exploded on the left side of the cockpit at 3:20 p.m. a good 10 kilometers above the contested area in eastern Ukraine. Hundreds of tiny particles had pierced the plane. Each one a deadly missile.
Dock remained empty
Now a criminal court in the Netherlands has sentenced three men to the maximum sentence for murder in 298 counts. Life imprisonment. According to the judges, the two Russians and one Ukrainian were responsible for obtaining the Russian Buk missile that shot down the plane. Another suspect was acquitted. However, the dock remained empty on Thursday. The convicts are said to be in Russia, and it is highly unlikely that they will ever serve their sentences.
The judges read the verdict in the high-security court at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol. The Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 took off from there exactly eight years and four months ago.
At the time, Piet Ploeg was sitting on a terrace in the Netherlands, having a drink with colleagues, when the report of the crash came. The plane was en route to Kuala Lumpur, and his brother Alex, his sister-in-law Edith and their 21-year-old son Robert were also on board. It got through to him later that day: “They’re gone, forever. And that breaks your heart.”
“A Day of Justice”
Ploeg was now in the courtroom too. Criminal proceedings had been conducted there against four men since March 2020. “We’ve waited eight years and four months for this day,” he said. He is also spokesman for the bereaved. “A Day of Justice.”
The presiding judge Hendrik Steenhuis recalled in detail the torment of the bereaved. “This punishment cannot take away the suffering, but the court hopes that clarity about who is at fault can bring some relief to the family.”
The victims came from ten countries, four of them from Germany. Since most were Dutch, the trial took place there. “With the verdict, we are one step closer to truth and justice for the victims and their families,” Prime Minister Mark Rutte said on Twitter.
And NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also spoke of an important sign. “There can be no impunity for such crimes.”
But those convicted should escape their punishment. All should be in Russia. “The country must not extradite its own citizens,” says Marieke de Hoon, a lecturer in international criminal law at the University of Amsterdam.
Igor Girkin is considered the main culprit. He was once a Russian intelligence officer, commander of the separatists in Donbass and defense minister. Sergei Dubinsky, a former Russian officer and Girkin’s deputy, coordinated the procurement and transport of the missile, according to the verdict. According to the verdict, Leonid Chartschenko, the only Ukrainian and head of a combat unit in the region, was directly involved in the delivery and gave the orders for use.
After it was shot down, rubble, pieces of luggage and body parts lay in an area of around 50 square kilometers between sunflower fields for weeks. The machine was later reconstructed from the rubble in the Netherlands for the investigators and judges.
None of the defendants ever appeared in court. Only one, the Russian Oleg Pulatow, had allowed himself to be defended. It is he who was acquitted.
Zelenskyj calls for consequences for the Russian leadership
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called the verdict “important”. “But it is necessary to hold the client accountable,” he wrote on Twitter, making it clear that he saw the Russian leadership as responsible.
The Russian Foreign Ministry rejected the guilty verdict as politically motivated. “Both the course and the results of the negotiations show that it was based on the political mandate to strengthen the version (…) of Russia’s involvement in the tragedy,” the ministry said on its website.
The relatives had also hoped for an answer to the question: What does Russia have to do with the shooting down? “Because no state can get away with mass murder,” said Ploeg.
Buk missile came from Russia
The MH17 case has also been a highly explosive political issue since the tragic July 17, 2014. Russia was not in the dock. However, the court indirectly found responsibility. At that time, fighting was already raging in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass. International investigators determined that the Buk missile came from Russia and belonged to the Russian army. The gun was then shipped across the border back to Russia.
The court agrees with these assessments. Russia effectively controlled the area, Judge Steenhuis said. “Russia supplied weapons, soldiers and other goods.” Moscow has so far firmly rejected all allegations and blamed Ukraine above all. The Kremlin never recognized the investigations and the court.
It is clear that the convicts did not press the button on the gun themselves. But the court saw it as proven that they were responsible for procuring the gun and ultimately for firing it. “According to the arguments of the prosecution, they accepted that they could also hit a civilian plane,” says lawyer Marieke de Hoon.
The prosecution presented a wealth of evidence, photos, videos, data, radio traffic, satellite images. Much of the evidence comes from open sources or from social media. “This digital evidence is new legal territory,” says De Hoon. “Acknowledgment may be important for other war crimes trials.”
The verdict should not be the last word in the MH17 trial. Lawyer De Hoon expects a subsequent appeal and also points to further proceedings, such as before the European Court of Human Rights. But Ploeg hopes for a turning point for the relatives. “I hope that many can now distance themselves,” he says. “But closing the chapter, that can never happen.”