The disaster happened on July 17, 2014. The Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777, Flight MH17, had taken off from Schiphol Airport in the Netherlands and was flying to its destination of Kuala Lumpur when it crashed in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. None of the 298 people on board survived.
To this day, no one has taken responsibility for the suspected deliberate downing of the aircraft. Several countries, including the Netherlands and Australia, have called for an international tribunal to deal with the MH17 case.
But the case did not make it to a UN court because Russia blocked the initiative with its right of veto on the UN Security Council. The Dutch government then decided to run the trial according to its own national laws, as most of the victims (193 altogether) came from the Netherlands.
The trail leads to Russia
After the disaster, the five countries that were most affected by it — Australia, Belgium, the Netherlands, Malaysia and Ukraine — formed the so-called Joint Investigation Team (JIT).
The investigators concluded that the Boeing 777 was hit by an anti-aircraft missile of the Soviet-era "BUK" type. This missile was allegedly launched from the part of Donbas that is controlled by pro-Russian separatists. The BUK missile system had been transported there from Russia and was taken back over the border shortly afterward, according to the JIT investigators.
These findings, the JIT says, are based on accounts by eyewitnesses who say they saw the launch of the missile, on remnants of the plane and the BUK missile that were found, on satellite images and radar data, and on photos and videos showing the transport of the Russian missile system to the site in Donbas where it was used. There are also recordings of telephone calls between suspects, some of which have been made public by the JIT. Ahead of the start of the trial, the Dutch chief investigator, Fred Westerbeke, said he was convinced there was proof to show Russia's involvement in the tragedy.
The main accused
The international investigators have named four main suspects so far. Three of them are Russians: Igor Girkin (nicknamed "Strelkov"), the former "defense minister" of the self-declared "People's Republic of Donetsk," Major General Sergey Dubinsky (nicknamed "the gloomy one") and Colonel Oleg Pulatov ("Levant viper"). The fourth suspect is the Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko ("mole"). They deny any involvement.
The investigators also suspect Volosdymyr Tsemakh, the ex-commander of a separatist anti-aircraft unit in Snizhne in eastern Ukraine. The JIT has explicitly not ruled out issuing further charges, but so far none have been brought against Tsemakh or anyone else. Other suspects could include the unnamed members of the crew manning the BUK missile system and the captain of the Russian 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade, who commanded the crew.
So far, none of the suspects have appeared in the courtroom. Russia does not extradite its citizens, and the Ukrainian Kharchenko has possibly gained a Russian passport. If the accused were prepared to testify, however, they may do so via video link.
A politically delicate aspect of the trial is that a high-ranking Russian government official, Vladislav Surkov, an adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin who recently stepped down, is one focus of the investigations. Surkov is seen as the unofficial driver of the Kremlin's course on Ukraine. In 2019, the JIT made public numerous intercepted phone calls that in the view of the investigators are connected with the MH17 downing. One of the people whose conversations were intercepted and made public is Surkov.
The start of the trial and the main proceedings
The main trial will begin with sessions starting this Monday. First, the court will discuss the question of the exact launch site of the missile that shot down the passenger plane, and then the role of the defendants. It will be handled by the judges at the court in The Hague. However, due to public interest, the hearings will take place in the Schiphol judicial complex, very close to the airport of the same name. The sessions will be broadcast live on the Internet.
The initial trial began on March 9, 2020, with procedural matters. The dock remains empty, but one of the defendants, Oleg Pulatov, will be represented in court by lawyers. He had let it be known via his lawyers that he had not been responsible for the MH17 crash. However, recordings of telephone conversations between the defendants published in the Dutch media heavily incriminate him and others.
Putin blames Ukraine
The shooting down of a civilian aircraft in connection with escalating clashes in eastern Ukraine led, in the summer of 2014, to harsher US and EU sanctions against Russia. The suspicion of Russian involvement in the MH17 disaster was quick in coming: In the first minutes after the downing of the plane, the Kremlin-backed separatists celebrated a putative "success." They thought they had shot down a Ukrainian military aircraft — as did Pulatov, which follows from the intercepted and published recordings.
The day after the suspected deliberate shooting down of the plane, Putin blamed on Ukraine. If Kyiv had shut down its own airspace, the tragedy would not have occurred, Putin said. To this day, Russian authorities deny any involvement in the MH17 catastrophe. However, the stance and the information policy of the Kremlin regarding the affair has changed over the years.
At first, state-run Russian media aired several contradictory versions to explain the crash: In November 2014, Russian state television showed "sensational" footage of a fighter plane near the MH17 aircraft. But radar data showed no plane there that could have shot down the Boeing.
In an interview for the US New Yorker magazine, the director of one of the major Russian TV channels, Konstantin Ernst, admitted that it had "made a mistake." Later, the manufacturer of the BUK system, the Russian company Almas-Antei, claimed to have carried out its own investigations. According to these, the missile was launched from a location controlled by Kyiv. Moscow does not accept the JIT's conclusions.
In October 2020, Moscow withdrew from talks with the Netherlands and Australia on the cause of the MH17 downing. This was a reaction by the Russian leadership to the Dutch government taking the case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in July 2020.
Lawsuits at the European Court of Human Rights
The trial in Amsterdam is the largest, but not the only, legal action regarding the MH17 case. Two class action lawsuits have been filed with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in the name of 380 relatives of victims of the MH17 crash. The plaintiffs accuse Russia of having violated the victims' right to life.
One of these suits was prepared by US advocate Jerry Skinner, who made a name for himself in the Lockerbie trial. The plaintiffs are demanding compensation from Russia of at least €6.4 million ($7.2 million) per deceased passenger. The ECHR called upon Russia to make a statement responding to the charges, which it did on January 2, 2020, though its contents were not made public.
Four relatives of MH17 victims have filed a suit at the ECHR against Ukraine. In their view, the Ukrainian government bears some of the blame for the death of the passengers, as they had not completely closed off airspace over the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine.
Airspace in the region on the day of the tragedy was indeed closed only to an altitude of 8,000 meters (26,247 feet). Russia unilaterally imposed a flight ban in the region bordering on Ukraine up to an altitude of 16 kilometers — just a few hours before the MH17 catastrophe. This altitude is considered the maximum range for BUK missiles.
This article was updated on June 7, 2021 to reflect the main trial getting underway.