Dutch prosecutors said they are charging four pro-Russian separatist commanders for their role in the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014, pledging that the trial would begin in March 2020.
Three of the men charged were Russian citizens, and Dutch police said they believed one of the commanders may have been an active member of Russia's military intelligence service at the time of the shooting down in July 2014.
A Dutch-led international investigation has been examining who was responsible for the disaster, which killed all 298 passengers, and on Wednesday at a press conference in Nieuwegein in the Netherlands, investigators announced they now had enough evidence to bring charges.
The Netherlands' chief prosecutor, Fred Westerbeke, said charges would be brought against Igor Girkin, Sergey Dubinsky, Oleg Pulatov and Leonid Kharchenko, saying they were suspected of being responsible for acquiring the anti-aircraft missile from Russia that was used to bring down the airliner. The men will be charged as criminally liable for causing the crash and with the murder of the 298 passengers, he said.
Westerbeke said that even though the men had "not pushed the button" launching the missile, they were responsible for having worked together to obtain it.
"In Dutch criminal law, persons not present themselves during the committing of a crime, but do play an important organizing role are just as punishable as the persons who actually committed the crime," Westerbeke said.
Igor Girkin, known by nom-de-guerre "Strelkov", is a former colonel in Russia's FSB domestic intelligence service who was the top military commander of the rebels' self-proclaimed People's Republic Donetsk or DNR, at the time of shooting down, when his forces were engaged in heavy fighting with Ukrainian government troops. Dubinsky was Girkin's deputy, running the rebels' military intelligence, and Pulatov and Kharchenko both served under him, the investigators said.
The Dutch officials claimed the men had "formed a chain linking the DNR to the Russian Federation," which had allowed the rebels to acquire heavy weapons, including the Buk anti-aircraft missile from Russia's 53rd Anti-Aircraft Brigade based in Kursk.
International arrest warrants have now been issued for the men, the Dutch officials said. But the men are unlikely to be at the trial when it starts in March next year since they are believed to be in Russia and rebel-held eastern Ukraine.
Russia has for years vehemently denied any involvement in the shooting down and instead has sought to blame Ukraine, releasing multiple alternative versions of events that have been repeatedly debunked. In making the charges on Wednesday, the Dutch investigators made clear they considered Russia was involved in the disaster and accused it of deliberately withholding information.
"We now have proof Russia was involved in this tragedy, this crime. One day after 17 July  they were in a position to tell us exactly what happened. They knew. The Buk was used in eastern Ukraine and they knew this. They didn’t give us this information," Westerbeke said. He called Moscow's refusal to cooperate with the investigation a "slap in the face" to victim's families.
The investigators on Wednesday said they had grounds to believe that the suspect Dubinsky, who ran the DNR's military intelligence, may also have still been an active member of Russia's military intelligence service, the GRU, when MH17 was brought down. Westerbeke on Wednesday said they had been asking Russia to answer this question for a year, but had received no response.
Russia's foreign ministry on Wednesday reacted as it previously has, in a statement calling the Dutch investigation "absolutely hollow" and intended to "discredit Russia in the eyes of the international community." The response underscored that Russia was unlikely to make the four men available for trial when it begins next year.
The Dutch officials said the trial would begin on March 9 at 10 a.m. at a court in The Hague, regardless of whether the men appeared, meaning they would be tried in absentia. Holland had requested that Russia serve the men with court summons, they said, noting they had not asked for extradition since Russia and Ukraine's constitutions prohibit it.
Girkin on Wednesday told Reuters that the "rebels did not shoot down the Boeing," but did not elaborate. Girkin left his post as the DNR's defense minister in 2014 and is now often in Moscow, where he makes embittered comments accusing the Russian government of betraying the rebels by failing to formally annex the separatist regions in eastern Ukraine.
In March, the Netherlands' foreign ministry said it and Australia had begun talks with Russia on how to resolve the stand-off and assign blame. But on Wednesday, the Dutch Justice Minister Ferdinand Grapperhaus wrote to the parliament that unspecified "diplomatic steps" had been taken against Moscow for failing to fully comply with legal requests or providing incorrect information, according to Dutch paper NLTimes.
The charges are based on an investigation by an international commission called the Joint Investigation Team, made up of the 4 countries that lost the most citizens, Holland, Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, as well as Ukraine. The JIT has spent years painstakingly reconstructing the minutes around the shooting down, as well as the missile and its launcher's route from Russia to rebel-held areas of Ukraine in the days before.
Investigators have questioned over 200 witnesses, analyzed hundreds of thousands of photos and videos and intercepted phone calls. They also reconstructed the destroyed nose-section of the plane from thousands of fragments collected from the crash site.
Despite the extensive evidence presented, Russian officials have claimed the JIT has never presented any hard proof of what happened. The Kremlin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov on Wednesday told reporters, "Russia was unable to take part in the investigation despite expressing an interest right from the start and trying to join it."
The independent online investigative group Bellingcat, which has published extensively about MH17, on Wednesday also released its own report identifying a dozen individuals it said were involved in the shooting down. The four suspects were named, and Bellingcat's description of the role they played was similar, with the researchers saying the DNR's military intelligence under Dubinsky had played an important role in obtaining and guarding the Buk missile.
Telephone intercepts released by the JIT have suggested that the rebels accidentally shot down MH17, mistaking it for a Ukrainian military aircraft. Westerbeke on Wednesday said that even if that were the case, they still hold the suspects responsible for the shooting down and that a court would have decide what they had known and their intentions.
"The suspects will have the opportunity to tell their side of the story in court," he said.
The charges announced Wednesday are just the first, the JIT investigators said, saying they were determined to also establish who had been key parts of the "chain of command" inside Russia in supplying the missile.
They said they also had reasons to believe the crew of the missile's launcher had included Russian military servicemen and that they were now focused on determining if this was the case. Wilbert Paulissen, the head of Holland's National Police, called on witnesses to come forward to aid the investigation.