Tuesday 19 October 2021

Russian MH17 witnesses face deportation after asylum claim is dismissed

Photo: NBAAI via Dutch Safety Board

Two Russian witnesses in the MH17 case are facing deportation from the Netherlands after the Dutch immigration service turned down their request for asylum.

The couple fled to Amsterdam in 2016 after being harassed by the Russian security services, the Volkskrant reported. Their ordeal is said to have begun when the woman overheard her boss celebrating the downing of the plane in a telephone conversation on the day of the crash.

Nearly 300 people died when the airliner was brought down over Ukraine on July 17, 2014, on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, two-thirds of whom were Dutch citizens.

A joint investigation team (JIT) including Dutch police and prosecutors has concluded it was hit by a BUK missile fired by pro-Russian separatist forces. Three Russian military officers and one Ukrainian are currently on trial in the Netherlands accused of causing the crash and murdering everyone on board.

The couple testified to the JIT in 2019 about a conversation at work on the day of the crash. The woman, given the name ‘Jelena’ by the Volkskrant, said she overheard her manager in his office talking excitedly about a plane crash.

When she later asked him what had happened, he replied that ‘the rebels’ had successfully brought down an aircraft ‘with a Buk missile.’ After it became clear that the plane was a passenger airliner, he told her to forget the conversation.

Embezzlement claims

In subsequent months Jelena’s husband, named as Igor, was accused of embezzling company money, detained in a cell for a weekend and interrogated by agents from the Russian security service FSB.

Jelena was visited at home by security agents who asked about her ex-boyfriend, who was involved in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, and her links to Russian opposition groups. In 2016 the couple flew to Amsterdam and claimed asylum.

The IND dismissed Jelena’s claim partly because she only told Dutch authorities what she knew about MH17 more than two years after arriving in the country. Jelena said she was worried that information she shared with the IND might not be secure.

The official from the JIT also stressed that she should keep the details of her testimony secret, the Volkskrant reported. But an asylum judge upheld the IND’s ruling and said Jelena and Igor should be deported to Russia.

IND ‘ignorance’

Intelligence experts quoted by the newspaper challenged the IND’s judgment that the couple’s story was ‘not credible’, as well as its conclusion that Jelena and Igor were not at risk of persecution by the FSB if they returned home.

‘I recognise all too clearly the naivety, or rather the ignorance, of the Dutch authorities when it comes to understanding these power games,’ an anonymous former intelligence agent said. ‘I suspect there is a real chance that something could happen to this couple even in the Netherlands.’

Another source close to the investigation told the newspaper that it was rational for Jelena to assume that her safety would be jeopardised if she told the IND what she knew about the crash. ‘That story is not safe with the IND,’ the person told the Volkskrant.

The couple’s lawyer is looking to start a new asylum application. The IND and the prosecution service declined to comment on the details of the case.

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