Russia accuses Netherlands of hostile actions in seeking justice for MH17 victims
Russia has announced that it is ending what it calls “trilateral consultations with Australia and the Netherlands on issues linked with the MH17 catastrophe over Eastern Ukraine on 17 July 2014”. The Foreign Ministry’s statement accuses the Netherlands of “hostile actions” in its lodging of an inter-state application against Russia with the European Court of Human Rights. For the totally uninitiated, the move might well seem unfriendly, since Russia nowhere mentions that it was a Russian BUK missile, transported to Donbas from a military unit in Russia, that downed the Malaysian airliner, killing 298 passengers and crew, including 80 children.
Russia delayed this move until the day after it was elected to the UN Human Rights Council, despite its illegal occupation and widespread human rights violations in Crimea; its war crimes in Ukraine and Syria; its use of the Novichuk nerve gas against the Kremlin’s enemies and much more. Whether this was deliberate is unclear, but certainly months have elapsed since the Netherlands announced its inter-state application to the ECHR back on 10 July 2020. The Dutch government explained that it was “sharing all available and relevant information about the downing of Flight MH17 with the ECtHR” and that it was also offering maximum support for individual applications brought by the families of the victims.
Russia’s alleged aggrievement is not just belated, but staggeringly dishonest and manipulative. The Foreign Ministry asserts that, from the outset, the Netherlands pursued only one explanation for the disaster and that this resulted, it claims, in both the Dutch Safety Board’s report, and that of the Joint Investigative Group (JIT) being “biased; superficial and politicized”.
Moscow claims that it, on the other hand was in favour or a full, thorough and independent investigation and that it offered comprehensive cooperation. It does not explain why, in that case, it used its power of veto in the UN Security Council to block the creation of an international tribunal into MH17. It was the only country of the 15 members of the Security Council to oppose the move.
Such ‘cooperation’ was just as evidently lacking in September 2019 when the Kremlin made a vital exchange of Ukrainian POWs and political prisoners contingent upon Ukraine handing over Vladimir Tsemakh, a key MH17 witness and probable suspect. In a video, Tsemakh can actually be heard admitting to a role in the attempt to conceal the Buk missile launcher, and since he is a Ukrainian national, there was no good reason for the Kremlin to be asking for him in exchange for Ukrainian political prisoners illegally held in occupied Crimea and Russia. Since Russia’s constitution only prohibits it from extraditing its own citizens, there was absolutely nothing to stop Moscow from acceding to the Dutch Prosecutor’s immediate request for Tsemakh’s extradition. Instead, it quickly sent Tsemakh to occupied Donbas. The Dutch Public Prosecutor has directly accused Moscow of getting Tsemakh out of Russia so that it would not need to comply with the European Convention on Extradition, and doing so to hinder the criminal investigation into a heinous crime.
It would appear to have also been engaged in behind-the-scene negotiations with Malaysia, probably using a deal on selling palm oil as incentive for an extraordinary statement by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad rejecting JIT findings.
Rather than demonstrating any wish to establish the truth about MH17, Russia has been pushing a plethora of ‘alternative versions’, most of them wildly improbable, with the aim clearly to create the impression that there is confusion as to what happened. In the statement on 15 October, the Foreign Ministry also added yet another attempt to distract by demanding an investigation into why Ukraine had not closed its airspace. With hindsight, everybody now understands that the airspace should have been closed, and other countries’ airlines should themselves have sought different routes, this only became clear after Russia brought in a surface to air missile launcher that could, unlike any of the other weapons around, hit a plane travelling at a height of 10 thousand metres. .
Given Russia’s obvious wish to obstruct the investigation, the main question is surely not why it has now left the ‘consultation group’, but why Australia and the Netherlands agreed to take part in such ‘consultations’ at all.
The trial is currently underway in the Hague of three supposedly former Russian FSB or military intelligence officers (Igor Girkin; Sergei Dubinsky and Oleg Pulatov), as well as a Ukrainian, Leonid Kharchenko over the transportation of the BUK missile launcher used to down MH17.
JIT earlier concluded that “the Buk missile which downed Malaysian airliner MH17 on 17 July 2014 came from the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile brigade which is a unit of the Russian army from Kursk in the Russian Federation”.
At a press conference on 19 June 2019, JIT announced that the four men were to be tried in absentia. Although none is accused of having fired the missile, the chain of command to Russia provided by the four men is believed to have played a direct role in getting the Buk missile launcher to Ukraine and subsequent events.
The Dutch prosecutor and JIT have been very public in demonstrating just how much evidence they already have and in inviting witnesses to come forward.
The trial began as scheduled on 9 March 2020, however there was a long break due to the pandemic, as well as a delay at the request of Pulatov, whose lawyers asked for more time and also applied for ‘other versions’ to be examined. Pulatov’s Dutch lawyers have acknowledged that they do not know who is paying for their services, and the suspicion does arise that Pulatov’s wish for lawyers is not to ‘prove his innocence’, but to drag the proceedings out considering ‘versions’ that the investigators have long since scrutinized and rejected.
During the first hearings, JIT noted that they had found evidence that the same Russian FSB and GRU [military intelligence] involved in state-sponsored killings abroad “are also closely involved in the armed conflict in Ukraine.”
Such evidence is not just confined to witnesses, but found in intercepted phone calls which, the prosecutor explains, were subjected to rigorous verification procedure. Such phone conversations reveal “various forms of involvement on the part of the GRU and FSB in the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine”. There are also some in July 2014 where members of the armed groups discuss having received ‘the green light from Moscow to execute somebody’ and ‘an order from Moscow to shoot someone’.
This is constantly denied by Moscow which claims that the Russians whose presence cannot be denied are there as ‘volunteers’.
The prosecution names other “clear indications that Russian security services are actively attempting to disrupt efforts to establish the truth behind the shooting down of flight MH17”, including the involvement of Russian GRU agents in hacking attacks against both the Dutch Safety Board during its investigation of the MH17 crash and of the Malaysian investigative and prosecution authorities. Nor are the Russian security services seen as acting independently, with the prosecutor stating that there “are strong indications that the Russian government is very keen to thwart this investigation, and that it is not averse to deploying the Russian security services to do so.”]