A Dutch court on Thursday convicted two Russians and a pro-Moscow Ukrainian separatist in absentia of the murders of 298 people who died in the 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine and sentenced them to life imprisonment.
One Russian was acquitted because of a lack of evidence.
Presiding Judge Hendrik Steenhuis said that evidence presented by prosecutors at a trial that lasted more than two years proved that the Boeing 777 flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was brought down by a Buk missile fired by pro-Moscow Ukrainian fighters on July 17, 2014.
The crash scattered wreckage and bodies over farmland and fields of sunflowers.
Against the geopolitical upheaval caused by Russia’s full-blown invasion of Ukraine, the court also held that Moscow had overall control of the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine, from where it said the attack was launched.
None of the defendants appeared for the trial that began in March 2020 and if they are convicted, it’s unlikely they will serve any sentence anytime soon. Prosecutors had sought life sentences for all four. Prosecutors and the suspects have two weeks to file an appeal.
Presiding Judge Hendrik Steenhuis opened Thursday’s hearing and 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 judge said he would go on to rule on other legal issues and the guilt or innocence of the suspects later in the hearing.
Tension was high among families before the hearing. “The truth on the table, that is the most important thing,” said Anton Kotte, who lost his son, daughter-in-law and six-year-old grandson when MH17 was shot down. He said the hearing was a D-Day for relatives.
Robbert van Heijningen, who lost his brother, sister-in-law and nephew, called the downing an act of barbarism that he could never put behind him, regardless of the verdict. “I call it a stone in my heart, and stones don’t disappear,” he said.
The Hague District Court sat in a high-security courtroom at Schiphol Airport. Hundreds of family members of people killed had travelled to the court to hear the verdict, bringing them back to the airport their loved ones left on the fateful day MH17 was shot down.
Outside the court, planes could be heard taking off and landing nearby on a cold, grey day.
Dutch prosecutors say the missile launcher came from the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade, a unit of the Russian armed forces based in the Russian city of Kursk and was driven back there after MH17 was shot down.
The suspects aren’t accused of firing the missile but of working together to get it to the field where it was fired. They are accused of bringing down the plane and the murder of all those on board.
The most senior defendant convicted is Igor Girkin, a 51-year-old former colonel in Russia’s Federal Security Service or FSB.
At the time of the downing, he was defence minister and commander of the armed forces of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic the region where the plane was shot down. Girkin reportedly is currently involved in Russia’s war on Ukraine.
Also convicted were Girkin’s subordinates, Sergey Dubinskiy and Leonid Kharchenko, a Ukrainian who prosecutors say was commander of a pro-Russia rebel combat unit and took orders directly from Dubinskiy.
Oleg Pulatovis the only one of the suspects who was acquitted represented by defence lawyers at the trial.
They accused prosecutors of tunnel vision in basing their case on the findings of an international investigation into the downing while ignoring other possible causes.
In a video recording 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.”