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‘Russia and murder are the two keywords’

The verdict on the MH17 crash case. An open letter from relatives of the victims to Russians and the Russian government

Ekaterina Glikman, exclusively for “Novaya Gazeta. Europe”

Schiphol Judicial Complex. Photo by Ekaterina Glikman

The verdict pronouncement on the MH17 case took two hours and fifteen minutes. Chief Justice Hendrik Steenhuis started off in a very calm, yet somewhat sad and surprisingly warm manner: “There are more of us today here than usual. I see familiar faces. I recognise those of you who spoke here at the trial before…”

The dock was empty, just like all 68 days of trial prior to that. However, there were so many relatives of the crash victims present there that none of the journalists could stand a chance of getting inside the courtroom itself.

There were no fewer reporters than relatives, too. A huge tent was built near the courthouse where a press centre was set up, broadcasting from the courtroom. There were no empty seats neither in the courtroom nor in the press centre.

Throughout the entire trial, the courtroom had five judges: three active ones and two substitute ones. Starting the verdict pronouncement, the Chief Justice said that although this case “was truly one of a kind and dazed many around here, it was, on the other hand, a completely regular one”.

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Judgement day

Dutch judges will deliver the MH17 trial verdict today. What the relatives of the victims expect from the trial

The main points of the verdict are the following.

One: the MH17 passenger flight was taken down by a Buk missile.

Two: the Buk missile system that took the plane down was brought to the vicinity of Pervomaiske, controlled by the so-called Donetsk “people’s republic” (“DPR”), from Russia, and after the missile was launched, it was hurriedly taken back to Russia.

Three: all four accused individuals, namely Igor Girkin, Sergey Dubinsky, Oleg Pulatov, and Leonid Kharchenko, were implicated in the crime in question. Girkin, Dubinsky, and Kharchenko have been found guilty and sentenced in absentia to life terms in prison for murder. Girkin, who acted as the leader of the separatists, has been declared being primarily responsible, while Pulatov, the only one of the accused who had defendants in the trial, has been pronounced not guilty due to the lack of evidence.

Four: the court has set the amount of moral damage compensations. The three convicts must pay over €16 million to the families of the victims.

Both the defence and the prosecution have 14 days to appeal the court’s decision. Should the verdict be appealed, the proceedings might take several more years to complete, first in the Appeals Court, potentially followed by the Supreme Court. If neither side files an appeal, the verdict will become final, and the prosecution will be able to enforce the sentence.

However, Girkin, Dubinsky, and Kharchenko, all sentenced for life, are outside the Netherlands, hence the sentence cannot be enforced: the Dutch authorities may not go abroad to arrest people in foreign countries. They may only request extradition, but neither Russian nor Ukrainian Constitutions allow such procedure to be applied to their own citizens. If the convicted travel to a different country, they run the risk of facing extradition to the Netherlands, however.

The judicial complex embedded with the prison wall. Photo by Ekaterina Glikman

Although the Hague district court oversaw the MH17 case trial, the court sessions were held at the Schiphol Judicial Complex, near Schiphol Airport. The courthouse there is literally embedded with a high-rising concrete wall that goes around the local prison.

It was raining the entire day, gusts of wind making one shiver of cold. Across the road from the judicial complex and the prison was the airport, dozens of planes in the line of sight. It was the same airport the MH17 flight to Kuala Lumpur departed from 8 years and four months ago. Indeed, it would be difficult to come up with a better location for what may very well have been the landmark court case in modern Dutch history.

The Buk surface-to-air missile fired against the passenger Boeing on 17 July 2014 took the lives of 298 people from 17 countries. The relatives of the victims gave numerous interviews to various journalists both before and after the verdict pronouncement.

Sander Essers. Photo by Ekaterina Glikman

“I’m certain Russia took part in what happened. Many people are certain about this, too. It’s important, however, what the court says on the matter,” said Sander Essers, who lost four relatives, namely his brother and the brother’s family of a wife and two children, before the court session started.

Anton Kotte, who lost three relatives — his son, the son’s wife, and Kotte’s 6-year-old grandson — appeared worried: “We all under tension here. In my opinion, the prosecution provided so much evidence that… But we still don’t know what decision the judge will make. There is doubt among the relatives.”

Anton Kotte after the verdict pronouncement. Photo by Ekaterina Glikman

I spoke to Anton again after the verdict pronouncement. He appeared to be in different spirits. “This is a victory,” he said. “I feel relieved. The judge was extremely professional. Now we can deliver the message to the whole world: Russia is involved in this tragedy; it is stated clearly in the verdict. This is the most important thing for me today. Now we have every ground to accuse Russia of not taking responsibility for what it actually did. I’m not disappointed that one of the accused was declared innocent, no. All things need to be proven. If he wasn’t proven to be guilty, he isn’t.”

Meryn and Jon O’Brien (left) and Matthew Horder (right). Photo by Ekaterina Glikman

Meryn and Jon O’Brien, who lost their son Jack, 25, were giving an interview nearby. They came here all the way from Australia to hear the verdict. “We are extremely worried about what’s going on in Ukraine now,” Jon said in a faltering voice. It was evident that it was hard for him to speak. “It’s because our son Jack was killed in this war. This war took his life. It was Russia’s aggression that killed him and all other people on that Boeing. And I want to see the Russian Federation in the dock in person. We want this to stop. Today, we heard a good verdict. Three people were found guilty. The fact that one was declared innocent makes a lot of sense as this is how justice should work. We are very grateful to the Netherlands for this investigation and this trial.”

Loes and Robbert van Heijningen. Photo by Ekaterina Glikman

Loes van Heijningen shared a similar opinion with me: “I believe that the fact that one of them was not convicted is a good sign as it indicates that the judges were fair and impartial and had no prejudice towards the accused.” Loes lost her husband’s brother who was travelling with his wife and son.

Robbert van Heijningen looked a bit disoriented. “How are you?” I asked him. “I’m sad,” he responded. “Some journalist asked me now if I consider this a victory. No, this isn’t a victory. This is still a tragedy. And it remains a tragedy. I’m still okay with the fact that there was not enough evidence to declare one of them guilty, too.”

The MH17 disaster took the lives of Matthew Horder’s parents. “My judgement on this verdict is a positive one,” says the Australian. “This doesn’t relieve me from the pain and grief, but this day wasn’t about this really. It was important to settle the truth today. There was so much disinformation around this case! It’s critical when a court of a level this high declares that the people were deliberately murdered. Yes, we knew this long before, but the court declaring it officially is a different thing.”

Piet Ploeg. Photo by Ekaterina Glikman

Piet Ploeg, the chairman of the MH17 disaster foundation who lost his brother who was travelling with his wife and son, elaborated on the same topic: “The court stated it very clearly: it was a Buk system which was brought from Russia and then returned to the Russian territory. It was launched from the territory controlled by Russia, too. So, Russia’s involvement is obvious. This decision, however, has nothing to do with politics. The court is absolutely independent. This was but a judicial verdict.”

Selena Fredricks, whose son Bryce, 23, was on that plane, pronounced her own verdict: “Russia and murder are the two keywords to me today.”

‘The accused deserved the utmost punishment’

This case is so big and so unique. Frankly speaking, I don’t understand how the judges managed to distance themselves and stay emotionally uninvolved.

Elianne van Rens

Representative of the District Court of The Hague

Our judges are professionals. They’re used to such things. They considered this case the same way they did with other cases. Yes, the speeches of the victims’ relatives have made a lasting impression on everyone, not only the people present, but also the judges. But this is what their job is all about: to consider a case, checking if there is enough evidence to what the defendants are accused of. And when the time comes, to pronounce the verdict, defining the gravity of the crime. In this case, the gravity was so serious that the accused deserved the utmost punishment, such as a life term. And this is what they got.

Pulatov was found innocent. Did being the only one who had defence help him?

The fact that Pulatov had defence helped set up a worthy discussion during the trial. But the court decides whether the evidence is sufficient to pronounce someone guilty. Pulatov knew that a Buk system was there. The court, however, had no evidence that he was actively participating in this crime. Therefore, he was declared innocent.

Could you explain why the combatant immunity was not applied to the accused?

It was an armed conflict. In this conflict, the launch of a Buk missile occurred. If this happened during a conflict between the armed forces of two countries, perhaps no one could have been taken to court for this. Although Russia was deeply involved in the conflict and controlled the separatists, it denied that the separatists are part of its armed forces. The separatists also denied being servicemen with the Russian army. Therefore, the court has indicated Russia’s deep involvement into this conflict, but combatant immunity could not be applied to the defendants.

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’Our children were killed by Putin too’

On the anniversary of the MH17 crash, the victims’ relatives talk about the Russian invasion of Ukraine and "what they were doing for eight years"

‘The war is not of your making, but can you play a part in its ending?’

On the day of the verdict, Jon O’Brien sent an open letter to Novaya-Europe addressing the Russian government and Russian citizens.

Our son Jack (aged 25) was killed early on in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, when MH17 was shot down. Jack is now physically absent from our lives and we live with the emptiness and sadness of that painful fact.

Jack did not ‘lose’ his life. He was not killed in an accident. He was murdered. His life was deliberately taken from him by other human beings. This is the truth that has been confirmed emphatically by the court in its verdict at the MH17 trial. The court’s verdict, while focussed on the guilt or innocence of the four men charged, also underlined the Russian state’s central involvement in the conflict. As a family we hold the Russian Federation responsible for Jack’s murder in this illegal and immoral war.

To the Russian leadership we want to say:

The lies and disinformation that were so confusing and disorienting after MH17, we now see as transparent, obvious and empty.

The brutality and violence that was camouflaged and contained then, has now been exposed to the whole world in all its unrestrained ugliness.

The disregard for human rights and human life that was so shocking and offensive then, is now revealed, not as an aberration, but as the Russian state’s normal way of operating.

Your lies mean nothing. You are the aggressor. It is you that has invaded a sovereign, independent nation. You are in the wrong. Ukraine is not your possession to do with as you will. Ukraine belongs to Ukraine.

To the Russian people we want to say:

Jack is gone from our lives. What were our hopes for him? We imagine the same as your hopes for your children: that he would grow up safe and well, that he would learn at school and find a good job and useful work, that he would marry and one day have a family of his own.

Now these hopes are gone. We will never see his life unfold. I will never hold his child in my arms as I once held him. Now, this unnecessary war is claiming more and more of your own children. They are being sent unprepared to fight a war that they have no reason to fight, against opponents who have every reason to defend themselves.

Your leader is said to be concerned about restoring Russia’s greatness. Are these the signs of Russia’s greatness you wish to see?

That missiles pour down on ordinary people in their homes in cities and villages?

That hospitals, schools and child care centres are bombed?

That women and even girls are raped and violated?

That civilians are tortured and executed for no reason and their bodies dumped in mass graves?

That the means to warm and feed people are deliberately destroyed so they will starve or freeze in the coming winter?

What sort of nation and what sort of people do you wish to be?

Why do some of you look away from the truth or pretend it does not exist? Please look the truth in the face and make a real choice.

This brutal and unnecessary war and the suffering it causes must come to an end. The war is not of your making, but can you play a part in its ending?

Jon O’Brien

Sydney, Australia

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