A court in the Netherlands has found three men guilty over the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, which was shot down over Ukraine in 2014 killing all 298 people on board.
The men – two Russians and one Ukrainian – were found guilty of murder and intentionally causing an aircraft to crash by The Hague District Court, sitting at a high-security courtroom at Schiphol Airport, on Thursday.
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All three – former Russian intelligence agents Igor Girkin and Sergey Dubinsky and Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko, a separatist leader – were sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment. A fourth suspect, Russian national Oleg Pulatov was acquitted.
“Only the most severe punishment is fitting to retaliate for what the suspects have done, which has caused so much suffering to so many victims and so many surviving relatives,” Presiding Judge Hendrik Steenhuis said, reading a summary of the ruling.
It is unlikely the three men will serve their sentences anytime soon as they remain at large. Prosecutors and the suspects have two weeks to file an appeal.
The verdicts came eight years after the Boeing 777 flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was blown out of the sky over Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region on July 17, 2014.
At the time, pro-Russian separatist rebels and Ukrainian forces were locked in a tense conflict – a precursor to this year’s war.
The dead came from across the world and included people from the Netherlands, Malaysia and Australia and 80 children.
‘Great relief’ among relatives
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on Friday welcomed the convictions.
“We welcome The Hague District Court finding of three men being guilty of murder over the downing of MH17,” Albanese told a news conference on the sidelines of an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Bangkok.
“We’ve gone through this legal and court processes and we call upon Russia to hand over for justice the people who are involved in this and who’ve been found to be guilty in absentia.”
Steenhuis said that evidence presented by prosecutors at the trial, which began in March 2020, proved that MH17 was brought down by a Russian-made Buk missile.
In another important finding, Steenhuis said that the court believed that Russia had overall control at the time of a separatist region in eastern Ukraine, the Donetsk People’s Republic. The crash scattered wreckage and bodies over farmland and fields of sunflowers.
Al Jazeera’s Step Vaessen, reporting from Schiphol Airport, said hundreds of relatives of those killed in the 2014 crash were in court to hear the rulings.
“There is a great relief amongst them,” she said.
Robert Van Heijningen, who lost his brother, sister-in-law and nephew in the crash, told Al Jazeera he was “very glad” about the court’s rulings.
“I knew from the start that there was very little chance that the suspects would end up behind bars, but it is very, very important for me that the judges decided on what was done and convicted those people,” he said.
“Justice has been served very well, but it’s not a time for closure because appeals are possible and I think [they] will be [forthcoming].”
Kyiv welcomes rulings, Moscow to ‘study’ them
The court’s decisions were also welcomed by Kyiv.
Ukrainian president Volodoymr Zelenskyy hailed the rulings as “important” but said those who had “masterminded” the downing of the plane must now face trial too.
“Punishment for all RF [Russian Federation] atrocities then & now is inevitable,” he tweeted.
Important court decision in The Hague. First sentences for the perpetrators of #MH17 downing. Holding to account masterminds is crucial too, as the feeling of impunity leads to new crimes. We must dispel this illusion. Punishment for all RF's atrocities then & now is inevitable.
— Володимир Зеленський (@ZelenskyyUa) November 17, 2022
Moscow denies any involvement or responsibility for MH17’s downing and in 2014 it also denied any presence in Ukraine.
In a briefing in Moscow on Thursday, Deputy Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ivan Nechaev told reporters the government would examine the court’s findings.
“We will study this decision because in all these issues, every nuance matters,” he said.
The developments in the MH17 case come against the backdrop of Russia’s nearly nine-month-long offensive in Ukraine, where explosions again rocked cities across the country on Thursday.