SCHIPHOL, Netherlands -- 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.
Against the geopolitical upheaval caused by Russia’s full-blown invasion of Ukraine this year, the court also held that Moscow in 2014 had overall control of the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine, from where it said the attack on the plane was launched.
Presiding Judge Hendrik Steenhuis said 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.
In the courtroom, some families of victims blinked away tears as Steenhuis highlighted how their lives were changed forever on that day.
Steenhuis described the torment of family members who had to wait for the remains of their relatives. “A piece of bone from a hand. A piece of leg or a foot. In two cases, no parts of a loved one returned.”
The three men, who can appeal, did not attend their trial at a tightly guarded courtroom on the edge of Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, from where the doomed plane left. Prosecutors had sought life sentences for all four. Prosecutors and the suspects have two weeks to file an appeal.
Hundreds of family members of people killed on the plane traveled to the court to hear the verdict, bringing them back to the airport their loved ones left on the fateful day that MH17 was shot down. Outside the court, planes could be heard taking off and landing nearby on a cold, gray day.
There had been fears that the weight of evidence was impressive but would not necessarily lead to convictions. Steenhuis, however, cited extremely detailed evidence showing where the Buk was fired from, the burns it left on a field, and how it moved around eastern Ukraine. He also went into deep details on the roles of the suspects.
“There is plentiful evidence” to support theory that the missile was shot from the field in rebel-held territory, Steenhuis said.
“There is no reasonable doubt possible,” he added, dismissing defense arguments that something might have happened to the plane.
The court ruled that the three men – Russians Igor Girkin and Sergey Dubinskiy, and Ukrainian separatist Leonid Kharchenko — worked together to bring the Buk missile system from a Russian military base into Ukraine and bring it into position for its launch.
And even if the shooting down of MH17 might have amounted to a military miscalculation, Steenhuis said “such an error did not change the intent.”
Relatives said the ruling showed who was responsible for all the deaths on the plane.
“The truth on the table — that is the most important thing,” said Anton Kotte, who lost his son, daughter-in-law and his 6-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 most senior official convicted was Girkin, a 51-year-old former colonel in Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB. At the time of the downing, he was defense minister and commander of the armed forces of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic — the region in Ukraine where the plane was shot down. Girkin reportedly is currently involved in Russia’s war on Ukraine.
Girkin’s subordinates, Dubinskiy and Kharchenko — a Ukrainian who prosecutors say was commander of a pro-Russia rebel combat unit and took orders directly from Dubinskiy — were also convicted and given life sentences.
Russian Oleg Pulatov, the only suspect represented by defense lawyers at the trial, was acquitted.
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.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the MH17 court decision was a vital first step in assigning responsibility for the crime but he added that more prosecutions and convictions were needed.
“It is an important decision in the court in The Hague. ... It is necessary that those who ordered it also find themselves in the dock, because impunity leads to new crimes,” he said on Twitter.
A Russian spokesman said Russia was not yet ready to comment on the MH17 convictions.
“We will study this decision. On all of these questions, every nuance has meaning, therefore after studying this judicial document, we will be ready to comment on it,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ivan Nechaev said.