A court in Ukraine has released on bail from pretrial detention a man suspected of involvement in the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014 that killed 298 people, most of them Dutch citizens.
The appeals court in the capital, Kiev, on Thursday ordered the release of Volodymyr Tsemakh from custody on recognisance, pending further investigation.
Ukraine captured Tsemakh, accused of fighting for pro-Russian separatists, in June this year, but he is believed to be a person of interest in the downing of MH17, which was en route to Kuala Lumpur from Amsterdam.
European politicians described him as a “key suspect” and asked Kiev to make him available for testimony in the investigation.
Tsemakh is a Ukrainian who is believed to have been in charge of air defence in the forces of the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic near Snizhne in eastern Ukraine.
Though his involvement in the MH17 downing has never been confirmed by Ukraine, 40 European politicians in a letter on Wednesday asked President Volodymyr Zelensky to make sure he is available for questioning by the Dutch-led joint investigation team.
Dutch investigators expressed concern over his unexpected release on Thursday.
“We would have wanted him to be available for the investigation, and of course we would regret it if we can’t because he’s being released,” Brechtje van de Moosdijk, a spokeswoman for the team, told AFP news agency.
Tsemakh’s release comes amid speculation he might be part of a prisoner swap with Russia.
Shortly after Tsemakh was freed on Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke about the impending prisoner exchange at a conference in Russia’s Far East, saying negotiations are now in their final stages.
“I think [the swap] will be fairly big,” he said in televised remarks, adding it would be a “good step” to improve Russia’s ties with Ukraine.
Later that day, Putin met Ukrainian politician Viktor Medvedchuk who has negotiated prisoner swaps with Russia before.
Putin did not give any timeline for the impending exchange but told Medvedchuk that Russian and Ukrainian authorities would make the announcement soon.
Unconfirmed reports have suggested that Tsemakh is on the list of prisoners that Russia wants to be exchanged in return for freeing several Ukrainians jailed in Russia, including 24 sailors captured off Crimea in November.
Flight MH17 was shot down on July 17, 2014, over territory held by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. Fighting between Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine has killed 13,000 people in the past five years.
Dutch prosecutors have said the missile system that brought down the airliner came from a Russian anti-aircraft brigade. Russia has denied any involvement.
In June, Dutch prosecutors officially named four suspects to face murder charges in the trial.
Three of them are members of the Russian armed forces who are alleged to have helped a separatist movement in Ukraine to obtain, use and remove a sophisticated anti-aircraft missile system.
All four are likely to be tried in absentia when the case is scheduled to be heard in March 2020 in the Netherlands.