International investigators on Wednesday charged three Russians and a Ukrainian with murder over the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, the first people to face justice over the tragedy five years ago in which 298 people were killed.
The Dutch-led team said the four men with military and intelligence links would go on trial in March next year, although they are likely to be tried in absentia in the Netherlands as neither Russia nor Ukraine extradites their nationals.
The move ramps up international pressure on Moscow over the downing of the plane, which was travelling between Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur when it was hit by a missile over part of eastern Ukraine held by pro-Russian rebels.
Officials said they had issued international arrest warrants for Russian nationals Igor Girkin, Sergei Dubinskiy and Oleg Pulatov, and Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko, all of whom are suspected of roles in the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic.
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.”
“We won’t demand their extradition because Russian and Ukrainian law forbids the extradition of their nationals. But we ask Russia once more to cooperate – many of our questions remain unanswered,” he said.
Prosecutors said they were all suspected of “close cooperation to obtain and deploy” the missile and could therefore be “held jointly responsible for shooting down flight MH17.”
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.
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.”
Piet Ploeg, president of a Dutch victims’ association who lost three family members on MH17, told AFP that it was “very important news”.
“The relatives of the victims have been waiting for this for nearly five years,” he said.
Girkin, 48, is the most high-profile suspect, having previously been the self-proclaimed defence minister in the Donetsk People’s Republic before apparently falling out with the Kremlin.
Girkin, who is thought to be living in Moscow, denied the separatists were involved. “I can only say that rebels did not shoot down the Boeing,” he told Russia’s Interfax news agency.
Dubinskiy, 56, who was formerly in the Russian military intelligence agency GRU, was head of the intelligence service of the Donetsk People’s Republic, while Pulatov, 52, an ex-soldier in the GRU’s Spetznaz special forces unit, was one of his deputies.
Kharchenko was a military commander in Donetsk at the time, the Dutch prosecutors said.
During the press conference by the investigators, a number of telephone intercepts were played that they said showed the four were involved.
Russia has vehemently denied all involvement, and complained that it had been excluded from the probe.
“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.
Russia insisted last year that the missile was fired by Kiev’s forces, adding that it was sent to Ukraine in the Soviet era.
Despite claims by Ukraine’s government and Dutch media that senior Russian officers would also face charges, none were named by the prosecutors on Wednesday.
The Joint Investigation Team (JIT) probing the attack includes Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, the Netherlands and Ukraine, representing the countries hardest hit by the disaster.
The Netherlands and Australia said in May last year that they formally “hold Russia responsible” for the disaster. Of the passengers who died, 196 were Dutch and 38 Australian.
Australia said Wednesday’s announcement was a “significant step” towards achieving justice, while NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said it was “an important milestone in the efforts to uncover the full truth”.
Former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, who was in office at the time of the disaster, welcomed the news, saying that: “The truth is like the sun, one cannot hide it with a palm.”
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.