A Dutch court on Thursday found two Russian and Ukrainian separatists guilty of mass murder for their role in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014.
Igor Girkin, a former colonel in Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), and Sergei Dubinsky, who worked for Russia’s GRU military intelligence, were convicted along with Ukrainian separatist Leonid Kharchenko, who is believed to have led a militant unit in Donetsk in July 2014
The three were jailed for life and ordered to pay victims more than €16 million, but because the sentences were handed down in absentia, none of them are likely to serve their sentences. The fourth suspect, Russian citizen Oleg Pulatov, a former soldier in the Russian Spetsnaz-GRU special forces, was acquitted.
“Causing the crash of flight MH17 and the murders of all on board is such a serious charge, the consequences are so devastating and the accused’s attitude so reprehensible that a limited period of imprisonment will not be sufficient,” the court said after the verdict .
Flight MH17 was en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur on July 17, 2014, when it was shot out of the sky over territory controlled by pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine. All 298 people on board died, including 15 crew members and 283 passengers from 17 countries.
The downing of the plane occurred in the early phase of the conflict between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces, a precursor to Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine earlier this year.
Thursday’s verdict, which follows a two-year trial at the heavily guarded Schiphol court complex in Badhuvedorp, marks the first independent verdict in the incident and may provide some justice for the victims’ families.
The case has become more important in light of Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine, which is almost in its ninth month. One legal expert told Reuters the ruling could affect other cases involving Russia, including one at the UN’s top court, the International Court of Justice.
The ruling comes weeks after Moscow tried to illegally annex four Ukrainian regions, including the area where the court said the missile that downed MH17 was fired eight years earlier. It also comes two days after a missile landed in Poland, raising fears that Russia’s attack on Ukraine could spread to neighboring countries.
The court found that flight MH17 was hit by a Russian Buk missile fired from farmland near a village in eastern Ukraine, which at the time was held by pro-Russian rebels controlled by Moscow, and that the missile system was was transferred back to Russia after the strike.
The three convicted men played a key role in transporting the Buk system and its crew to Ukraine, the court ruled, although it found there was insufficient evidence to determine who fired the missile.
Presiding judge Hendrik Steenhuis said the court had found that the firing of the missile at MH17 was a premeditated act aimed at bringing down a plane – and while the crew probably believed they were shooting at a military aircraft, it would be “crystal clear” that no one at the board of the target aircraft will not survive.
“The Buk weapon system is designed to shoot down aircraft and cannot just be used arbitrarily. Such a deployment requires preparation, including targeting and transportation to the launch site. The launch of the missile must be very deliberate and carefully considered in accordance with the technical procedure and requires a well-trained crew. The probability of people on board an airplane surviving a Buk missile attack is zero. Anyone who uses a specialized, expensive weapon like the Buk TELAR will be aware of this,” the court said in a statement.
The court also ruled that since the defendants were not official parties to the conflict and therefore did not have combat immunity, they were not allowed to shoot down any aircraft, military or civilian.
Moscow has repeatedly denied any responsibility for the attack, and Russian officials and state media have offered a range of often conflicting explanations for the tragedy.
But on Thursday, Steenhuis cited a body of evidence for the court’s verdict and ruled out any alternative explanations for the incident.
Evidence reviewed by the court included fragments of a Buk missile found embedded in the plane and the bodies of some victims, intercepted phone calls and witness statements, as well as videos and images of the scene and of a Buk system moved to Eastern Ukraine from Russia and then back again.
Those convicted have the right to appeal. Moscow described the sentence as “politically motivated” and said it would not extradite the convicted Russians to the Netherlands.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called the verdict an important moment for taking responsibility. “Holding the organizers to account is also crucial, as a sense of impunity leads to new crimes.” We must dispel this illusion. Punishment for all [Russia’s] atrocities then and now are inevitable,” he tweeted.
Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said the United States welcomed the court’s decision, but that there was more work to be done.
“While this is a solid step towards justice, there is more work to be done to meet the UN Security Council’s demand in Resolution 2166 that ‘those responsible… be held accountable,'” Blinken said in a statement.