Nieuwegein, Netherlands: Dutch prosecutors are to put four people on trial for murder next year over the shooting down of flight MH17 over Ukraine, in which 298 people were killed, relatives said on Wednesday.
The court case over the crash of the Malaysia Airlines plane will start in the Netherlands in March 2020, according to family members who were briefed ahead of an announcement by international investigators due about 1100 GMT.
National Police chief Wilbert Paulissen names 3 Russians, 1 Ukrainian as murder suspects in MH17 downing. The Dutch-led probe said it was going to prosecute Russian nationals Igor Girkin, Sergey Dubinskiy and Oleg Pulatov as well as Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko.
The airliner travelling between Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur was torn apart in mid-air after being hit by a missile over territory in eastern Ukraine held by pro-Russian separatists on July 17, 2014, investigators say.
"There is a court case on March 9, 2020, against four people for murder," Silene Fredriksz, whose son and daughter-in-law were killed in the disaster, told reporters.
"I am happy that the trial is finally going to start and that the names have been announced. It's a start. I'm satisfied."
The charges come nearly a year after the international probe into the crash said the BUK missile which hit the Boeing 777 had originated from a Russian military brigade based in the southwestern city of Kursk.
Asked if she personally blamed anyone for the crash, Fredriksz said: "Mr (Russian President Vladimir) Putin.
"Because he made this possible. He created this situation. He is the main responsible person."
You know our attitude towards this investigation. Russia had no opportunity to take part in it even though it showed initiative from... the very first days of this tragedy.
Russia has vehemently denied all involvement in the shooting down of MH17. On Wednesday it complained of being excluded from the probe despite "proactively" trying to be involved.
"You know our attitude towards this investigation. Russia had no opportunity to take part in it even though it showed initiative from... the very first days of this tragedy," Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
Ukraine's deputy foreign minister Olena Zerkal said on Tuesday that four people would be named over MH17 and senior Russian army officers were involved.
Zerkal said the transfer of weapons like the BUK anti-aircraft missile system "is impossible without the (Russian) top brass's permission".
Dutch media have named several suspects including the head of the 53rd anti-aircraft brigade, the Russian unit identified by the probe last year.
'First step to trial'
The Joint Investigation Team (JIT) probing the attack includes Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, the Netherlands and Ukraine.
The Netherlands and Australia said in May last year that they formally "hold Russia responsible" for the disaster, after the findings on the origin of the missile were announced.
Of the passengers who died, 196 were Dutch and 38 Australian. Any trial is likely to be in the Netherlands where the majority of the victims came from.
198of the 298 passengers who died in the MH17 attack were Dutch.
The suspects could be tried in absentia as Russia does not extradite its nationals for prosecution, said Dutch broadcaster RTL, quoting anonymous sources.
"After five years, it is finally clear that justice will be done. This is very important for surviving relatives," Piet Ploeg, president of a Dutch victims' association who lost three family members on MH17, told AFP.
Investigative website Bellingcat on Wednesday named a series of Ukrainian separatists that it said were linked to the downing of MH17, based on phone intercepts previously revealed by the Dutch-led team.
The Dutch safety board said in 2015 that the plane had been hit by a BUK missile, with the JIT reaching the same conclusion in 2016.
Then in May 2018 the JIT said MH17 was shot down by a BUK missile from Russia's 53rd brigade, but that they were still searching for suspects.
They showed videos and animation of the BUK launcher as part of a Russian military convoy, using video clips found on social media and then checked against Google Maps, as it travelled from Kursk to eastern Ukraine.
Russia insisted last year that the missile was fired by Kiev's forces, adding that it was sent to Ukraine in the Soviet era.
The war in eastern Ukraine and the MH17 disaster continue to plague relations between Russia and the West.
Since 2014, some 13,000 people have been killed. Kiev and its Western backers accuse Russia of funnelling troops and arms to back the separatists. Moscow has denied the claims despite evidence to the contrary.
Who are the four men charged with downing of MH17?
Igor Girkin - also known by his pseudonym "Strelkov" - is the most high-profile suspect.
The former Russian intelligence agent with fighting experience from Chechnya to Yugoslavia claims to have kick-started the war in East Ukraine as the commander of pro-Moscow fighters that captured key locations around the region.
In 2014, Girkin ruled the then rebel stronghold of Slavyansk with an iron fist, with executions for petty theft reportedly carried out under his rule.
But he was squeezed out of the separatist leadership later that year under mysterious conditions and returned to Russia, where he lost all influence and reportedly had financial difficulties.
On Wednesday, the historical re-enactment fan denied pro-Russian separatists were behind the missile attack.
"I can only say that rebels did not shoot down the Boeing," he told the Interfax news agency.
He is thought to be living in Moscow.
Sergei Dubinsky, nicknamed "Khmury", reportedly met Girkin when he fought in the First Chechen War in the mid-1990s. He is also a veteran of the 1980s Soviet war in Afghanistan.
At the time of the downing of the plane, Dubinsky was allegedly serving as the military intelligence chief of the separatists in eastern Ukraine.
He has also been linked to Russia's GRU intelligence service.
According to the independent Bellingcat website, Dubinsky had "requested the delivery of a battle-ready BUK missile launcher" - the type of missile investigators said downed the plane.
The website also said Dubinky was "involved in the removal of the BUK back to Russia after the downing of MH17."
He reportedly resides in Rostov-on-Don, his native city in southern Russia near the border with Ukraine.
Nicknamed "Gyurza", after a viper snake, Oleg Pulatov is a former Russian army officer.
In the summer of 2014 he was one of Dubinsky's deputies at the heart of the separatist military leadership.
He allegedly helped transport the BUK system to Ukraine and, after the downing of the plane, helped ensure the safety of the area where the MH17 debris fell.
Ukrainian citizen Leonid Kharchenko, nicknamed "Krot", was also linked to the separatist leadership when the plane was downed.
According to Bellingcat, he was involved in "securing the BUK missile launcher near the launch site." The website also reported that Kharchenko could have coordinated the transport of the missile launcher from the main city in separatist eastern Ukraine, Donetsk.
According to Ukrainian media, Kharchenko is wanted by Kiev for the siege of government buildings and his role in helping the rebels.
In an interview published in 2015 by a separatist news agency, he called authorities in Kiev a "fascist regime" that is built on a "Nazi" ideology.
Ukrainian security services told AFP Wednesday that they had "no information" on Kharchenko's whereabouts or whether he was still alive.
Key questions about MH17 charges
What are the suspects accused of?
Each suspect faces two criminal charges: firstly, "crashing flight MH17, resulting in the death of all passengers,"; and secondly, "the murder of the 298 occupants of flight MH17".
Investigators admitted the three Russians and one Ukrainian charged had "not pushed the button themselves" on the BUK missile that brought down the Malaysia Airlines plane five years ago.
But Dutch prosecutor Fred Westerbeke told a press conference it was enough that the four had "closely cooperated to obtain the BUK and put it in position on the launch site with the goal to shoot a plane."
He added: "In Dutch criminal law, persons who are not present themselves during the implementation of a crime but play an important organising role are just as punishable as the persons who actually committed the crime."
Why were there no other charges?
Ahead of Wednesday's announcement, expectations ran high that Russian top brass would be among those charged, based on a statement by a Ukrainian minister and reports in Dutch media.
Instead, all four suspects turned out to be senior figures in the separatist Donetsk People's Republic in eastern Ukraine, rather than the Russian military itself.
Dutch police chief Wilbert Paulissen said Wednesday the "investigation towards prosecution of other suspects will proceed".
Investigators were hunting the crew that operated the BUK missile system, believed to be about four people, "and people who formed the link in the Russian chain of command."
Prosecutor Westerbeke said they simply did not have enough evidence yet to secure criminal convictions of other suspects.
"We want to go as far as we can get," he said, appealing for more witnesses.
Will the suspects ever appear in court?
Investigators admitted it was unlikely the suspects would appear in the dock in the Netherlands.
The Russian and Ukrainian constitutions forbid extradition of their nationals to any other country, Westerbeke said.
"I am a realist, meaning that I don't think the odds are now on our side", he said, adding Russia had so far refused to cooperate.
"That is a slap in the face to the bereaved, and I call out to them (Russia) to start cooperating," he added.
Under Dutch law, however, the men can be tried in their absence, meaning "the criminal trial will take place even when the suspects choose not to be present."
The trial is due to start on March 9, 2020 at a high-security court in Schiphol - close to the airport where the doomed flight took off.