Prosecutors to file first charges over downing of MH17, says report

MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board, on July 17, 2014. (Reuters pic)

PETALING JAYA: Dutch prosecutors are said to be ready to file the first criminal charges against four suspects over the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 five years ago.

The plane, which was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur on July 17, 2014, was shot out of the sky over territory held by separatists in eastern Ukraine, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew on board.

About two-thirds of the passengers were Dutch. Also killed were 43 Malaysians.

A report by Britain’s The Guardian said the prosecutors were set to identify the suspects on Wednesday and the charges are likely to target members of a Russia-backed separatist movement in eastern Ukraine.

“The Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team (JIT) is set to present new evidence in the MH17 investigation on Wednesday, and is expected to name its first four suspects in the case,” it said.

The report, which described the incident as the worst atrocity in five years of war between Ukraine and the separatists, said those charged may include Russian servicemen who commanded or helped transport the anti-aircraft missile system used to bring down MH17.

It said the charges will raise tensions with Moscow, which is unlikely to turn over its citizens, especially those in uniform, to stand trial in a foreign country or at the international criminal court.

Russia’s constitution, The Guardian said, forbids the extradition of its citizens.

The report said the Joint Investigation Team previously alleged that the surface-to-air missile that brought down MH17 belonged to the Russian armed forces and had been supplied by the country’s 53rd anti-aircraft brigade in Kursk.

“Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, disregarded those findings, saying the investigation ‘did not inspire confidence’ and that ‘several versions’ of events existed,” it said.

The Guardian also reported that Ukraine’s foreign ministry confirmed on Tuesday that criminal charges would be brought against the suspects named in the team’s presentation.

“The names will be announced. Charges will be brought. After that, the criminal court of Schiphol will start working to consider this case,” it quoted Ukraine’s deputy minister of foreign affairs, Olena Zerkal, as telling the Interfax-Ukraine news agency.

“They are only the top. Naturally, then the number of people who are involved in this will be much larger than the four people who will be named.”

Zerkal was also quoted as saying he believed the charges could target “senior officers” in the Russian army because the transfer of a surface-to-air missile system “is impossible without the top brass’s permission”.

The Guardian said the investigative collective Bellingcat, which collected and analysed open-source data about the incident, will also make a presentation on Wednesday identifying “separatists involved in the downing of the plane”.

Last year, Bellingcat identified one of the Russian military intelligence officers allegedly involved as Oleg Ivannikov, a career GRU officer who operated undercover in rebel-controlled Luhansk in eastern Ukraine.

According to the website, Ivannikov operated under the cover names “Orion” and “Andrey Ivanovich”.

The Guardian said it was unclear if several names put forward by a Dutch news programme, Nieuwsuur, including Sergei Muchkaev, commander of the 53rd anti-aircraft brigade in Kursk, a former Ukrainian serviceman accused of collaborating with separatist forces, and several alleged members of Russian military intelligence, commonly referred to as GRU, will be among the suspects identified on Wednesday.

“Dutch authorities have revealed few details about the upcoming announcement. The chief Dutch prosecutor, Fred Westerbeke, wrote to relatives last week and invited them to a briefing on Wednesday in Nieuwegein, near Utrecht,” the report said.

The closed meeting for family members will take place ahead of a press conference scheduled for 1pm local time on Wednesday, it added.