International investigators on Wednesday charged four people with murder over the 2014 shooting down of flight MH17 above rebel-held eastern Ukraine in which 298 people were killed.
The Dutch-led team said it was going to prosecute Russian nationals Igor Girkin, Sergey Dubinskiy and Oleg Pulatov, and Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko over the downing of the Malaysia Airlines plane.
Relatives of the victims said they had been told the trial of the men for murder would start in March 2020, although they are likely to be tried in absentia as Russia does not extradite its nationals for prosecution.
Russia has vehemently denied all involvement in the downing of MH17, while Girkin on Wednesday said Ukrainian separatists were also not implicated.
“Today we will send out international arrest warrants for the first suspects that we will prosecute. They will also be placed on national and international wanted lists,” Wilbert Paulissen, chief constable of the Netherlands National Police, told a press conference.
Dutch prosecutor Fred Westerbeke said they were the “four who will be held accountable for bringing the deadly weapon, the BUK Telar, into eastern Ukraine.”
The same investigation team said in May 2018 that the BUK anti-aircraft missile which hit the Boeing 777 had originated from the 53rd Russian military brigade based in the southwestern city of Kursk.
The airliner travelling between Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur was torn apart in mid-air after being hit by a missile over territory in eastern Ukraine held by pro-Russian separatists on July 17, 2014, investigators say.
The wreckage was spread over a wide area in an incident that plunged relations between Moscow and the West, already tense over the conflict in eastern Ukraine, deep into crisis.
– ‘I’m satisfied’ –
Prosecutors said Girkin was a former colonel in Russia’s FSB intelligence agency who was the self-declared minister of defence in the separatist administration in eastern Ukraine.
Dubinskiy was a former minister from the Russian military intelligence agency GRU, Pulatov was an ex-soldier in Russia’s Spetznaz special forces unit and Kharchenko a Ukrainian separatist.
A number of telephone intercepts were played that prosecutors said showed the four were involved.
Relatives of those killed aboard MH17 welcomed the news.
“It’s a start. I’m satisfied,” Silene Fredriksz, whose son and daughter-in-law were killed in the disaster, told reporters. “I am happy that the trial is finally going to start and that the names have been announced.”
Asked if she personally blamed anyone for the crash, Fredriksz said: “Mr (Russian President Vladimir) Putin. Because he made this possible. He created this situation. He is the main responsible person.”
Girkin, who is also known as Igor Strelkov, denied the rebels were involved.
“I can only say that rebels did not shoot down the Boeing,” he told Russia’s Interfax news agency.
Russia complained on Wednesday of being excluded from the probe despite “proactively” trying to be involved.
“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,” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
– ‘Hold Russia responsible’ –
The Joint Investigation Team (JIT) probing the attack includes Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, the Netherlands and Ukraine.
The Netherlands and Australia said in May last year that they formally “hold Russia responsible” for the disaster after the findings on the origin of the missile were announced.
Of the passengers who died, 196 were Dutch and 38 Australian. Any trial is likely to be in the Netherlands where the majority of the victims came from.
“After five years, it is finally clear that justice will be done. This is very important for surviving relatives,” Piet Ploeg, president of a Dutch victims’ association who lost three family members on MH17, told AFP.
– Russian denials –
The Dutch safety board said in 2015 that the plane had been hit by a BUK missile, with the JIT reaching the same conclusion in 2016. Then in May 2018, the JIT said MH17 was shot down by a BUK missile from Russia’s 53rd brigade.
They showed videos and animation of the BUK launcher as part of a Russian military convoy, using video clips found on social media and then checked against Google Maps, as it traveled from Kursk to eastern Ukraine.
Russia insisted last year that the missile was fired by Kiev’s forces, adding that it was sent to Ukraine in the Soviet era.
The war in eastern Ukraine and the MH17 disaster continue to plague relations between Russia and the West.
Since 2014, some 13,000 people have been killed. Kiev and its Western backers accuse Russia of funnelling troops and arms to back the separatists. Moscow has denied the claims despite evidence to the contrary.