MH17 verdict: Three pro-Russian troops convicted of murder over deaths of 298 people

Three soldiers in a pro-Russian separatist army have been convicted of murder over the deaths of 298 people onboard flight MH17.

Russians Igor Girkin and Sergey Dubinskiy, and Ukrainian national Leonid Kharchenko, were found guilty of 298 counts of murder and "unlawfully causing an airplane to crash" by the Hague District Court at Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam. They were sentenced to life imprisonment.

Fourth defendant Oleg Pulatov was acquitted after the court found he had no prior knowledge of the plan to fire the missile. Nor did he have the authority to overrule Dubinskiy's order to find the missile, the court stated.

Compensation totalling €16m (£14m) will also be handed to victims' family members. Prosecutors and the suspects have two weeks to file an appeal against the guilty verdicts.

Hague District Court judge Hendrik Steenhuis found that MH17 was brought down in July 2014 by a Russian Buk missile fired from a Kremlin-occupied region of eastern Ukraine.

He said early in proceedings: "The court can already declare that it takes a view that MH17 was brought down by a Buk missile launched from an agricultural field near Pervomaisk [in the Russian-held Luhansk region of Ukraine]."

The Malaysian Airlines flight was shot down over eastern Ukraine on July 17 2014, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew members onboard.

The incident sparked a geopolitical fracas early in Russia's initial invasion of eastern Ukraine, where MH17 fell.

Russia denied all responsibility, but the Dutch government holds Moscow responsible. Ukraine's then-president Petro Poroshenko described the incident as "an act of terrorism".

Two-thirds of passengers on the flight between Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur were Dutch.

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Even though the four men most likely thought the Boeing 777 was targeted "in error", as they believed the plane was a military aircraft, "this does not detract from the intent" to destroy the plane and kill all onboard, the judge said.

Foreign secretary James Cleverly tweeted shortly after the verdict: "Guilty. Today's guilty verdicts, convicting three individuals of murder in relation to the downing of MH17, is a landmark conviction and an important step towards justice for the victims and their families.

"I would to thank the extraordinary efforts of the Dutch authorities and the Joint Investigation Team."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also wrote: "An important court decision in The Hague. The first sentences for the perpetrators of downing MH17. Punishment for all RF's [Russia's] atrocities then & now is inevitable."

As the four men were not considered combatants, with the DPR is technically a non-state actor, the four were not entitled to the immunity offered to soldiers at war.

Despite the publicity of a long trial, the defendants were never likely to be imprisoned and remain at large. Three were tried in absentia and one pleaded not guilty via lawyers he hired to represent him. None attended the trial.

Also onboard MH17 were 43 Malaysian citizens, 27 Australians, a dozen Indonesians, ten Britons and residents of Belgium, Germany, Canada, New Zealand and Philippines.

Around 200 victims' family members were present in court today, the Associated Press reported.

Anton Kotte, who lost his son, daughter-in-law and his six-year-old grandson in MH17 said: "The truth on the table - that is the most important thing."

He added that the hearing was a "D-Day" for relatives.

Robbert van Heijningen, who lost his brother, sister-in-law and nephew, called the attack "an act of barbarism" that he could never put behind him.

"I call it a stone in my heart, and stones ... don't disappear," van Heijningen added.

Suspicion quickly fell on fighters with the so-called Donetsk People's Republic (DPR), a separatist army in eastern Ukraine backed by the Kremlin.

It was found the missile used to shoot down the 777 was a Russian-made Buk rocket.

An earlier Dutch investigation that found the DPR was responsible.

That inquiry, which concluded its findings after five years in 2019, prompted criminal proceedings against Russian nationals Girkin, Dubinskiy and Pulatov, and Ukrainian national Kharchenko.

A separate investigation had found in May 2018 that the launcher used to fire the surface-to-air missile belonged to Russia's 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade, a unit of the Russian armed forces based in the Russian city of Kursk
- with evidence showing how it was moved from a Russian base across the Ukrainian border.

The team recreated the route taken by the missile convoy from Kursk into eastern Ukraine using videos and images obtained using open source intelligence (OSINT).

"All the vehicles in a convoy carrying the missile were part of the Russian armed forces," Wilbert Paulissen, one of the international investigators, told a televised news conference.

Girkin, a former FSB colonel who became a commander in the DPR, received the most attention in the trial.

'A slap in the face for victims' families'

Chief prosecutor Fred Westerbeke said in 2019 that the failure by Russia to aid the investigation that led to the charges was a "slap in the face" to the families of those who died.

"We have established that there has been involvement of the Russian Federation because they made available the missile that was used to shoot down MH17," he said.

"The Russian Federation has not disclosed anything that happened and that is a slap in the face for all the relatives of the victims, and I call out to them to start co-operating."

Australian Vanessa Rizk, who lost both of her parents in the crash when she was 22, said Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government were part of the "political nightmare" that led to the grief she suffered.

"I still cannot fathom that our family is caught up in a frustrating and deadly political crisis," she said in 2021.