war crimes in Ukraine

The Tribunal for Putin (T4P) global initiative was set up in response to the all-out war launched by Russia against Ukraine in February 2022.

Dutch Prosecutor accuses Russia of deliberately hiding important MH17 suspect

Halya Coynash
The Netherlands has seen no reason to mince words over Russia’s swift moves to ensure that MH17 suspect Vladimir Tsemach was safely out of the reach of the Dutch Public Prosecutor

The Netherlands has seen no reason to mince words over Russia’s swift action aimed at ensuring that MH17 suspect Vladimir Tsemach was safely out of the reach of the Dutch Public Prosecutor.  In a press release *on 2 December, the Public Prosecutor directly accused Moscow of deliberately ensuring that Tsemach was out of Russia before he would need to be handed over to the Netherlands in accordance with the European Convention on Extradition.

Tsemach (or Tsemakh) is a Ukrainian national who was captured in a daring SBU operation on 27 June, 2019 and charged over his role as a militant commander of a unit which had downed several Ukrainian military transport planes.  His capture received world headlines and intense interest from the Joint Investigative Team [JIT] investigating the downing of MH17 because of his believed role in the hasty removal of the BUK missile launcher back to Russia as soon as it became clear that a passenger airliner had been downed and all 298 people on board, including 80 children, had been killed. .

Both militants from the Russian-controlled ‘Donetsk people’s republic’ and Russian state media have tried to dismiss accusations against Tsemach as being “Ukrainian falsification”, however there is a video in which Tsemakh can be heard admitting to a role in the attempt to conceal the BUK missile launcher.

Ukraine’s Constitution prohibits the extradition of Ukrainian citizens, however Ukraine, as a member of JIT, had fully cooperated with the Dutch Prosecutor and ensured access to Tsemach while he was imprisoned.  

It is known from a Dutch Foreign Ministry letter that the Netherlands were informed that Tsemach might be part of an exchange of prisoners back in the middle of August and that the Dutch Public Prosecutor was given another opportunity to question him.

Russia’s effective acknowledgement of its role in MH17 can be seen first in the mere fact that it insisted on Tsemach’s inclusion in a list of prisoners to be exchanged.  Ukraine’s list included the 24 seamen whom Russia had been holding as POWs since 25 November, and 11 political prisoners, including filmmaker Oleg Sentsov and at least three men whose life was in danger from continued Russian captivity.  When Moscow made the exchange contingent upon Tsemach’s inclusion, Ukraine’s leaders agreed.  That decision was met with regret, but some degree of understanding from Ukraine’s partners. 

Indeed, Russia’s insistence of Tsemach’s inclusion should have been an opportunity to ensure that he was handed over to the Netherlands authorities.  It was not, due to Russian deliberate sabotage. 

In its press release, the Public Prosecutor stated that it had “shared findings with the Russian authorities” about its request for Tsemach’s extradition as a person named as a suspect over the downing of MH17.

The timing here is critical and further incriminates Moscow, since the Public Prosecutor had got confirmation that its extradition request had been received before Tsemach’s plane even landed in Moscow on 7 September. There was no impediment to such extradition, as Tsemach is a Ukrainian citizen.

Since Tsemach was not immediately placed under arrest, pending a decision on extradition, the Public Prosecutor contacted the Russian judicial authorities several times and warned that Tsemach could abscond.

They were told on 23 September that the extradition request was under consideration and were asked for additional information. This was repeated several times, with the information requested always provided although, according to the Public Prosecutor, it was not relevant to the decision on extradition.   There were very high-level attempts to expedite the procedure.

The Public Prosecutor was told only on 19 November that the request for Tsemach’s arrest could not be executed as the Russian authorities were not aware of Tsemach being in Russia.

In fact, it was reported by Russian media, citing Tsemakh’s daughter, that he had returned to Donbas as early as 12 September.  Russia even used him for further lies and manipulation about MH17 during an interview published by the Russian state-controlled RIA Novosti on 5 November. It is clear from Monday’s press release, that the Dutch prosecutor is aware of that interview  (See: Russia hides MH17 suspect, then uses him for lies about the disaster and about ‘civil war’ in Ukraine ).

The Dutch Public Prosecutor has, therefore, concluded that Russia deliberately caused the situation whereby Tsemach left Russia and where it flouted a legitimate request for his extradition.

This, however, they stress, will not affect the beginning of the first trial in absentia of four MH17 suspects due to begin on 9 March 2020, and expected to run over 35 weeks.  Three of the four suspects – Igor Girkin, Sergey Dubinsky and Oleg Pulatov  are Russian former or current FSB or military intelligence officers, while a fourth man – Leonid Kharchenko – is Ukrainian, and believed to be in militant-controlled Donbas.  Of the Russians, it was stated at the press conference on 19 June 2019 that “in the past all were sent abroad in the service of the Russian Armed Forces”.

Even prior to this, JIT had 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”.

As JIT made very clear on 14 November, this is by no means the only evidence they have, and the investigation is ongoing.   Intercepted calls were published which indicated direct high-level Russian links with the militants controlling the territory from which MH17 was shot down.  In one of the conversations, on 3 July 2014, Alexander Borodai, the self-styled ‘DPR prime minister’ can be heard stating that he is “carrying out orders and protecting the interests of one and only state, the Russian Federation’.   

The Kremlin has every reason to be worried, and not only because of the intercepted calls.  It was clearly a part of the strategy on 14 November to stress that JIT is receiving vital information from individuals linked with the so-called ‘republics’ and to invite others to come forward

(see: Intercepted calls prove Russian government control of militants in Ukraine on eve of MH17  )

All of this evidence is likely to be invaluable evidence to back Ukraine’s case against Russia over alleged violation of the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism at the UN’s International Court of Justice

(see: Victory for Ukraine means Russia must answer to UN court, including over MH17


*  As of March 2020, the link is not working.  Details can be found here


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