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Three found guilty in downing of Malaysia Airlines plane with 298 on board: what happened that day above Ukraine?

On July 17, 2014, Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was on its way to Kuala Lumpur from Amsterdam with 283 passengers and 15 crew members on board. There were no survivors in the crash.

Judges and lawyers view the reconstructed wreckage of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, at the Gilze-Rijen military Airbase, southern Netherlands, on May 26, 2021.Judges and lawyers view the reconstructed wreckage of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, at the Gilze-Rijen military Airbase, southern Netherlands, on May 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong, Pool)

A court in The Hague, Netherlands, has pronounced two men with ties to Russian security agencies and a Ukrainian separatist leader guilty of murder, in the shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines passenger aircraft above eastern Ukraine in 2014, in which 298 people were killed. Another accused, Oleg Pulatov of Russia, was acquitted due to a lack of evidence.

Presiding Judge Hendrik Steenhuis said, “the court takes the view that the MH17 was brought down by a Buk missile”, launched from an agricultural field in eastern Ukraine. The Buk missile is manufactured by Russia.

Steenhuis said the court believed that Russia had overall control at the time of a separatist region in eastern Ukraine, the Donetsk People’s Republic, the AP reported. Prosecutors sought life sentences for all four, and the suspects have two weeks to file an appeal. None of the four men accused was present in court. Only the defence team of Pulatov was present and argued he didn’t get a fair trial. In a video played in court, Pulatov insisted he was innocent and told judges: “What matters to me is that the truth is revealed. It’s important for me that my country is not blamed for this tragedy.”

The court asked the three men to pay at least 16 million euros in compensation. The Russian Foreign Ministry said it would comment on the judges’ statements after examining the decision.

Who are these four men?

The main man is Igor Girkin, a former colonel in the FSB, Russia’s federal security service that succeeded the KGB (the USSR’s security agency). He had played a key role in Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014, and in the war in the Donbas between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists. At the time the aircraft was shot down, he was the defence minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, the separatist enclave that was recognised by Russia as an independent entity days before the invasion of Ukraine, and which Russia ultimately annexed at the end of September.

Among the defendants are two former Russian military intelligence officers named Sergey Dubinsky and Oleg Pulatov. Both were operatives of the agency known as GRU.

The fourth man is Leonid Kharchenko, a Ukrainian citizen who commanded a Russian-backed separatist military unit under Dubinsky.

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What will happen to them now?

Not much. The whereabouts of these men are not known other than they are probably in Russia or Russian-controlled territory. They were not arrested, and they were tried in absentia.

The trial began in 2020 in the District Court of The Hague and has been seen in the Western narrative as a victory for the investigators and an embarrassment for Russia.

What charges did they face?

A joint team of investigators from Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, the Netherlands and Ukraine had determined that the missile that downed the aircraft was a Soviet-made Sa-11 ‘Buk’ surface-to-air missile that was fired from a military base in Kursk in southern Russia.

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According to the prosecutors, the men “formed a chain linking the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic with the Russian Federation,” The New York Times had reported at the time.

“It was through this chain the suspects were able to get heavy military equipment from Russia to the battlefield of eastern Ukraine,” including the sophisticated antiaircraft missile system that downed the plane, The NYT report said.

What exactly happened on that day?

On July 17, 2014, Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was on its way to Kuala Lumpur from Amsterdam. There were 283 passengers and 15 crew members on board. Those on board belonged to about a dozen nationalities, but the bulk of them — 193 — were Dutch.

The Boeing 777-200ER was struck by the missile while flying over territory in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists were fighting Ukrainian government forces. Western governments immediately accused the Russians of being involved in the crime.

The Russian government has always denied its involvement, and Russian media have instead accused the Ukrainians or Western intelligence agencies.

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How does this tragedy fit into the larger context of the Russia-Ukraine war?

In early 2014, after the pro-Moscow leader in Kyiv, Viktor F Yanukovych, was ousted by street protests, the new regime signed a trade agreement with the European Union that was seen as a step towards Ukraine joining the EU.

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In response, Russia annexed Crimea, and instigated rebellions in the eastern Ukrainian region known as the Donbas, comprising Donetsk and Luhansk. The civil war that broke out continued right until 2022, and became the pretext for the Kremlin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine.

First published on: 17-11-2022 at 20:13 IST
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