3 Russians, 1 Ukrainian facing murder charges in attack on Malaysia Airlines flight that killed 298

An international team of investigators determined that flight MH17, which crashed in Ukraine in 2014, was shot down by a Russian-made missile launcher.
Image: A Malaysian air crash investigator inspects the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, near the village of Hrabove in Donetsk region, Ukraine
An investigator inspects the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, near the village of Hrabove in Donetsk region, Ukraine, on July 22, 2014.Maxim Zmeyev / Reuters file

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By Patrick Smith

Investigators have identified four people they say were responsible for the rocket attack that downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014.

At a press conference Wednesday, an international joint investigation team said that murder charges would be brought against them in the Netherlands.

This is the latest result of a criminal investigation that in 2016 revealed the plane was shot down by a Russian-made Cold War rocket launcher from an area of Ukraine then controlled by Russian forces.

Russian presidential spokesperson Dmitry Peskov appeared to reject the investigation's findings before they were released.

"Russia had no opportunity to take part in it, although from the very beginning, from the first days after this tragedy, she took the initiative, tried to become part of this investigation of this monstrous disaster," he told Russia's Tass news agency. "Therefore, our attitude to this investigation is very well known."

Fred Westerbeke, the chief public prosecutor, told a press conference: “We have decided to prosecute four suspects for the downing of flight MH17. This is the start of the Dutch criminal proceedings."

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“This airplane … with its 298 passengers ended up in an area almost five years ago in eastern Ukraine where an armed conflict was going on. That conflict is still going on today, turning an area of war into a crime scene."

The four suspects include three Russian nationals — Igor Girkin, Sergey Dubinskiy and Oleg Pulatov — and Leonid Kharchenko, a Ukrainian. The four will be charged with causing the crash and with the murder of the 298 people.

A pro-Russian separatist stands at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, near the village of Hrabove in Donetsk region, Ukraine, July 18, 2014.Maxim Zmeyev / Reuters

“We have taken into account the armed conflict," Westerbeke said. "The possibility exists that the suspects wanted to shoot a military plane instead of a passenger flight. Even if that was the original plan, we do hold them responsible for downing MH17.”

A video played at the press conference said that the Russian suspects had previously held senior roles in Russia’s military and security services.

Girkin, the investigation claims, was a former colonel of the FSB, Russia’s security service. Dubinskiy was employed by the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service. Pulatov is a former soldier of the GRU’s military intelligence service.

Investigators believe that the suspects were active in the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic, a breakaway region of Ukraine controlled by Russian fighters — the same area from which the joint investigation group believes the missile that hit MH17 was fired.

There was a direct link between these militia fighters and Moscow, the investigation claims, allowing them access to military hardware.

The event took place in the Netherlands, where the investigation has been based — 196 Dutch nationals were on board the flight, which took off from Amsterdam bound for Kuala Lumpur. Families of those killed were given a private briefing beforehand.

The Dutch national police have said that the "purpose of the criminal investigation is to find the truth, to establish the facts, to identify those responsible for the crash and to collect criminal evidence for a prosecution."

The investigative team includes experts from Australia, Belgium, Malaysia and Ukraine.

Russia has previously been critical of the investigators’ decision not to involve Moscow in the inquiry and has dismissed its findings as “biased and politically motivated.”

The Dutch police will not submit an extradition request to Russia and Ukraine for the suspects, but will instead make a request of "mutual legal assistance" in the hope Russian authorities will choose to comply. Russia has previously denied extradition requests and its constitution prohibits its citizens from being sent abroad to stand trial.

Wilbert Paulissen of the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) addresses at the press conference of the JIT on the ongoing investigation of the Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash in 2014, in Nieuwegein, The Netherlands, 19 June 2019.Robin van Lonkhuijsen / AFP - Getty Images

International law experts have expressed doubt over whether those responsible for the attack will ever be brought to justice.

The incident increased already heightened tensions between Moscow and the West, with the European Union expanding economic sanctions on Russia in the wake of the attack, including against members of President Vladimir Putin's inner circle.

In 2014, Russia was already facing condemnation and restrictive sanctions for its annexation of Crimea and supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine.