There are ‘strong indications’ Russian president Vladimir Putin decided to supply Ukrainian separatists a missile that shot down aircraft MH17 in 2014 – but not strong enough to prosecute, investigators said on Wednesday.
The Joint Investigation Team (JIT) has spent eight and a half years investigating the downing of the aircraft and deaths of 298 civilians and crew but is now winding up operations because they can go no further, officials said.
Last November, the Hague District Court found Russians Igor Girkin and Sergey Dubinsky and Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko criminally responsible for the shooting down of flight MH17 on July 17, 2014, over separatist-held eastern Ukraine.
Publishing a 67-page report on their findings, JIT members told a press conference in The Hague there was currently insufficient evidence to charge any other suspects for their involvement in shooting a civilian aircraft out of the skies, killing 196 Dutch nationals.
‘We do have strong indications about [Putin’s] decision-making but we do not reach the high bar [for prosecution],’ Dutch prosecutor Digna van Boetzelaer said. ‘At this moment, Putin is head of state. He has an immunity. Only after he is [no longer] head of state can we look into what is next, step by step.’
Russia has consistently denied any involvement in the MH17 disaster and repeatedly denied supplying a missile that shot it down.
However, prosecutors said that further investigations by the International Criminal Court and the European Court of Human Rights would use their evidence gathered from interviews, intercepted telephone calls, satellite images and other primary sources.
The press conference, which included representatives from the Dutch, Australian, Malaysian, Belgian and Ukrainian prosecution services or police, included telephone calls claimed to be between figures such as Putin himself – discussing a prisoner exchange – and military leaders in eastern Ukraine.
One referred obliquely – the JIT said – to Putin, saying ‘he’s the one who makes the decision, nobody else’ and referring to him as ‘the First’. It said that self-appointed leaders of the Donetsk People’s Republic had repeatedly asked Russia for anti-aircraft missiles to fuel their fight with the Ukrainian army in 2014, especially as Ukrainian military aircraft were flying higher.
The court case last year, which sentenced Girkin, Dubinsky and Kharchenko in absentia to life imprisonment and found a fourth suspect Oleg Pulatov not criminally responsible, also found that the Buk missile system which shot down the plane was supplied by Russia.
Piet Ploeg, chairman of relatives’ organisation Stichting Vliegramp MH17, told Dutch News the report would be taken into account by the European Court of Human Rights and International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). ‘Just as important was the information that Putin was personally concerned with the situation in the Donbas region and took decisions about the delivery of weapons, which was shown through intercepted phone conversations,’ he said.
‘It’s shocking that he was so personally involved with a war that he always said had no Russian presence.
‘Of course, we relatives would rather have known the identity of the crew of the Buk Telar [missile], because they are the only people who can answer the question of why this happened, whether it was an accident, a conscious choice or anything in between.’
Andy Kraag, head of the National Criminal Investigations Division of the Dutch police, said that there were mixed feelings among relatives and investigators.
‘Of course there was disappointment – of course they wanted to know why MH17 was shot down,’ he said. ‘The next of kin were grateful for the work that has been done. It was a dual feeling of disappointment but also respect.’
He added: ‘Are we disappointed? No. We came further than we would have thought. But at this point we have reached our limits. The next answers lie in Russia and as long as there is no cooperation from Russia, the answers will remain there.’
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