Dutch MH17 investigators spied on by Ukraine, Russia: report

The Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 crash site in Ukraine. Source: Twitter/ @mashableThe Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 crash site in Ukraine. Source: Twitter/ @mashable

Dutch police officers, soldiers, prosecutors and diplomats were spied on by Ukrainian and Russian secret services while they were in Ukraine after the MH17 disaster in 2014, RTL Nieuws reports based on well-informed sources.

After flight MH17 was shot down on July 17th, 2014, dozens of Dutch civil servants traveled to Ukraine to start an investigation into the disaster and to recover victims' bodies and possessions. This involved close cooperation with Ukraine, which is also part of the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) currently conducting criminal investigation into the perpetrators behind the disaster.

But according to RTL, that same country also spied on the Dutch officials using eavesdropping devices in hotel rooms and spying software on electronic devices. One source told the broadcaster that Russia's espionage was even more structural and extensive. 

Due to the wide-spread espionage, Dutch civil servants going to Ukraine were warned to be cautious - don't use WiFi networks and always make sure important information is encrypted before sending it. The risk of being tapped was considered so great, that government officials were told to only have important conversations at the embassy in special boxes, as everywhere else was labeled unsafe, RTL's sources said. 

According to the sources, while in Ukraine Dutch civil servants found that the cameras and microphones on their smartphones, tablets and laptops switched on by themselves. And their devices kept trying to connect to WiFi networks unprompted. Listening devices were found in hotel rooms. And during checks on devices after returning to the Netherlands, illegal software was regularly found. 

Whether valuable information was obtained during these espionage operations is not clear. But according to RTL, it is clear that the Dutch government assumes the worst - even today. The Netherlands' recent decision to formally hold Russia accountable for its role in the MH17 disaster was made in utmost secrecy, out of reach of any eavesdropping devices and without using vulnerable means of communication, the broadcaster writes.

In a joint response to RTL, the Public Prosecutor, police and the Ministries of Justice and Security, General Affairs, Home Affairs, Foreign Affairs and Defense confirmed that it was "conceivable that other parties wanted to gather intelligence", partly because flight MH17 was shot down in a "conflict area where large geopolitical interests played". To prevent espionage by Russia and Ukraine, "police officers were constantly alerted that someone could listen in or watch" them. "The advice to them was therefore: assume that this is happening and adjust your behavior with telephone and laptop", the statement reads. They did not respond to specific questions RTL submitted to them.

GroenLinks wants the government to get an explanation from Ukraine. "I think it's important that now that this has surfaced, the Netherlands says to Ukraine: this is unacceptable. We are on the same side and we should not work with a secret agenda", parliamentarian Bram van Oijk said to the broadcaster. "I assume that the Netherlands will therefore confront Ukraine with these findings and ask for clarification."

"It is not normal", Sjoerd Sjoerdsma, MP for ruling party D66, said to RTL. "But unfortunately it does happen. We have to conclude that espionage happens always and everywhere, but it is not nice." CDA parliamentarian Chris van Dam wants to know from the government whether "our services were prepared for this danger at the time."

Flight MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine on July 17th, 2014. All 298 people on board, including 196 Dutch, were killed. Investigation by the Dutch Safety Board and the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) so far revealed that the Malaysian Airlines flight was shot down by a BUK missile system from the 53rd Anti-aircraft Brigade of the Russian Armed Forces, fired from a field in Ukraine that was under the control of pro-Russian separatists at the time.