Four suspects to be prosecuted for MH17 in Netherlands next year

Wilbert Paulissen identifying the first four suspects to be prosecuted for the MH17 disaster, 19 June 2019
Wilbert Paulissen identifying the first four suspects to be prosecuted for the MH17 disaster, 19 June 2019Photo: Politie/JIT

Four suspects will be prosecuted for murder in connection with the downing of flight MH17 in eastern Ukraine in July 2014, the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) announced in a press conference on Wednesday. The trial against the four suspects will be held in the Netherlands, starting in March 2020. “We now have the information, have the proof, that the Russian Federation is involved in this tragedy, in this crime, one way or another.” Dutch Prosecutor Fred Westerbeke said in the press conference. 

Identifying the perpetrators was complicated, partly due to the large number of theories going around, Westerbeke said. "Doing justice to the victims of this crime has always been our purpose", Westerbeke said. The suspects that will be prosecuted are responsible for transporting the missile system used to down the Malaysia Airlines flight. 

The four suspects are Sergey Dubinskiy, Oleg Pulatov, Igor Girkin who also goes by Igor Strelkov, and Leonid Kharchenko. Dubinsky is a former Russian intelligence officer who in 2014 stood at the head of the intelligence service for separatist group DNR. Pulatov was Dubinsky's second in command. Both played an important role in the transport of the BUK missile that shot down MH17, according to the JIT. Girkin was the "Minister of Defense" of the DNR and a former Russian intelligence officer. Kharchenko was head of a battalion that was active in the area from where the BUK missile was fired. 

Kharchenko is Ukrainian, the other three are Russian. The suspects are believed to be either in Russia or in DNR controlled territory. International arrest warrants will be issued against the four suspects today. They will also be placed on international wanted lists.

The suspects will be prosecuted for causing the MH17 crash and leading to the death of everyone on board. They are also facing charges of murdering 298 passengers of MH17. In formulating the charges, the JIT took into account the military conflict going on in the region at the time. The JIT assumes that they meant to shoot down a military plane, not a passenger plane. "But even if that was the goal, we will prosecute the suspects." 

The Public Prosecutor will not ask for the suspects' extradition, because the constitution of both Russia and Ukraine do not allow the extradition of nationals. Westerbeke again asked Russia to assist the JIT in the investigation into the transport of the BUK missile launcher, and if Dubinsky worked for the Russian government in July 2014.

Just minutes before the press conference began, Russian news agency TASS published quotes from a top Russian spokesperson criticizing JIT for not allowing the country to participate in the investigation.

“Russia has not been given the opportunity to take part in it, although from the very beginning, from the first days after this tragedy it showed the initiative, and was eager to join the investigation into this awful crash,” Russian Presidential Spokesman Dmitry Peskov reportedly said on Wednesday.

The court was informed about the decision to prosecute the four suspects on Wednesday. The suspects will be tried by the court in The Hague, at the high-security court at Schiphol. The trial will start at 10:00 a.m. on March 9th, 2020. Westerbeke called on the suspects to take note of this date and to attend the trial. "I don't think the odds are on our side", Westerbeke said in response to a question asking if the suspects will actually appear in court. He stressed that the trial will continue even if the suspects are absent. It is important for the relatives of the victims, and the world, to know the truth about what happened. The relatives will be informed about what role they will play in the trial.

“We have established that there has been involvement by the Russian Federation when it comes to the downing of MH17 because they made available the Buk TELAR that was used to shoot down MH17. And we have all the material that can substantiate that.” Westerbeke said in response to a question about Kremlin involvement in the disaster. “That also means that if you look back, you can establish that from the first day after the 17th of July the Russian Federation has not disclosed anything about what happened, and that is a slap in the face of all the relatives of the victims and the bereaved.”

Westerbeke called Wednesday a day that will never be forgotten by those affected by the MH17 disaster. The JIT promised the relatives that they will do everything in their power to bring those responsible for the disaster to justice. Westerbeke is pleased that it reached the point of prosecution for four suspects. 

With the prosecution of these four suspects, the investigation is not over, Wilbert Paulissen, head of the National Investigative Department of the Dutch police, stressed at the press conference. Thus far in the investigation, witnesses played a very important role. So far the JIT spoke to around 300 witnesses. Paulissen again called on witnesses to come forward. He stressed that they realize witnesses are taking a risk by coming forward, and witness safety is therefore a top priority for the JIT. A witness protection program is possible if it's deemed necessary, he said. 

Westerbeke also said that the information revealed today is by far not the only evidence the JIT collected against the four suspects. 

The four suspects the JIT identified on Wednesday were also named in a report by international investigative collective Bellingcat a few hours before the press conference. 

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) previously 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.

The JIT tracked a convoy of nearly 50 military vehicles, including the BUK that shot down MH17, from a 53rd Brigade parking area in Kursk to the border of Ukraine between June 23rd and 25th, 2014 - a few weeks before MH17 was shot down. Australia and the Netherlands officially held Russia accountable for its role in the MH17 disaster - providing the missile that shot down the plane - in May last year. 

In September Russia held a press conference in which the country said that the BUK missile was indeed made in Russia, but was in Ukrainian hands at the time of the disaster. Russia has been pointing the finger to Ukraine since the disaster happened. In October the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that it is willing to discuss MH17 liability with the Netherlands, "partly with the goal of looking professionally at the responsibility of Ukraine". The first meetings happened in March

Sergey Dubinskiy
Sergey DubinskiyPhoto: Politie
Igor Girkin
Igor GirkinPhoto: Politie
Leonid Kharchenko
Leonid KharchenkoPhoto: Politie
Oleg Pulatov
Oleg PulatovPhoto: Politie