Four suspects charged with murder over MH17 crash
Four suspects have been charged with murder over the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, including a former Russian officer.
The suspects were named as Igor Girkin, a former colonel of the Russian Federal Security Service; Sergey Dubinsky and Oleg Pulatov, who worked for the Russian Military Intelligence Service; and Leonid Kharchenko, a Ukrainian former commander.
All four were officials in the pro-Russian Donetsk People's Republic, which is fighting for independence from Ukraine.
They are charged with causing the MH17 crash, leading to the deaths of all 298 people on board, and with murdering the crew and passengers on the plane.
The trial in the Netherlands will begin on 9 March, 2020, Dutch National Police chief Wilbert Paulissen announced at a press conference in the Utrecht province given by the Joint Investigation Team.
Investigators including Australian authorities accused the four suspects of transporting the Buk missile that struck the passenger plane and killed all 298 people on board as it flew over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014.
"Today we will send out international arrest warrants for the first suspects that we will prosecute," said Netherlands National Police Chief Paulissen. "They will also be placed on national and international wanted lists."
However, they may have to be tried in absentia. The Russian Constitution bars extradition of Russian nationals for overseas trials, and says that for crimes committed abroad, Russians can only be tried in Russia.
Russia has indicated it will not provide legal assistance or hand over suspects. However, if the suspects were convicted in absentia they would face Interpol arrest warrants if they ever left Russian territory.
Girikin, the highest military commander of a separatist rebel group in eastern Ukraine's Donetsk region at the time, said he would not testify in the Dutch-led legal proceedings at The Hague.
"Neither I nor any other separatist is to blame," he told Russian news agency Interfax. "The militia does not have anything to do with this."
Dutch prosecutor Fred Westerbeke said the four suspects "will be held accountable for bringing the deadly weapon, the Buk Telar, into eastern Ukraine".
The investigation team said in May 2018 that the Buk anti-aircraft missile that hit the Boeing 777 had originated from the 53rd Russian military brigade based in Russia's southwestern city of Kursk, about a day's drive over the border from the crash site.
Mr Westerbeke said he was sure the Russian government, which developed the Buk missile, knew what happened. "They could have told us what happened," he said. "They didn't. I wouldn't call this cooperation."
Asked why no current members of the Russian army had been charged investigators said they were confident there would be more suspects.
These are expected to include four suspects who operated the missile and others who were part of the "chain of responsibility".
The downing of MH17 is the worst deliberately-caused air disaster since 2996 people were killed in the September 11 attacks in New York in 2001.
Peter Crozier, Assistant Commissioner at Australian Federal Police, said the joint investigation had been "one of the most complex criminal investigations ever to be conducted", during the press conference in the city of Nieuwegein at 1pm local time (9pm AEST).
Family members of the victims, who include 38 Australians, were briefed on the charges ahead of the press conference.
Silene Fredriksz, whose son and daughter-in-law were killed in the disaster, told reporters she was relieved. "I am happy that the trial is finally going to start and that the names have been announced," she said. "It's a start. I'm satisfied."
Ms Fredriksz-Hoogzand, whose son Bryce and his girlfriend Daisy Oehlers were among the dead, said she blamed the Russian president Vladimir Putin for the appalling tragedy.
"He made this possible," she said. "He created this situation. He is the main responsible person."
Russia has vehemently denied all involvement in the shooting down of MH17, on Wednesday complaining of being excluded from the probe despite "proactively" trying to be involved.
The announcement five years after the tragedy will allow a case to finally be brought before the courts and provide some solace for the victims' families.
Those killed include 38 Australian citizens and residents, 193 Dutch, 43 Malaysians, 12 Indonesians, 10 Britons and one New Zealander.
The Australian victims include Otis, Evie and Mo Maslin, their grandfather Nick Norris, Canberra mother Liliane Derden, Arnhem Land teacher Emma Bell, and Sydney nun Philomene Tiernan.
The other passengers killed include Belgians, Germans, Filipinos and a Canadian.
Dutch and Australian officials held meetings with Russian counterparts behind closed doors earlier this year.
Australia and the Netherlands will soon hold a second round of talks with Russia over the legal ramifications of the charges and potential trial.
Ukraine's Deputy Foreign Minister for European Integration Olena Zerkal on Tuesday told Interfax-Ukraine news agency a Dutch court would "start working to consider this case".
She said the transfer of weapons like the Buk anti-aircraft missile system "is impossible without the (Russian) top brass's permission".
The deputy foreign minister also indicated charges could be laid later on those who gave the order to shoot and those who launched the missile. "They (the suspects to be charged on Wednesday) are only the top," Ms Zerkal said.
"Naturally, then the number of people who are involved in this will be much larger than the four people who will be named."
The Dutch Broadcasting Foundation (NOS) reported that the Joint Investigation Team, or JIT, has concluded the disaster was a tragic accident rather than being intentional, with the culprits attempting to conceal it afterwards.
"The JIT assumes that the downing of MH17 was a mistake," NOS reported on Wednesday. "The plane may have been mistaken for an enemy aircraft."
Mr Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters: "You know our attitude towards this investigation. Russia had no opportunity to take part in it even though it showed initiative from ... the very first days of this tragedy."
The JIT appealed in September 2016 for witnesses to provide evidence that could help identify two men heard speaking on intercepted communications discussing movements of a convoy in the days before the attack. At the time, the JIT said "there is no evidence that these calls are directly related to the shooting down of MH17."