Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur on July 17, 2014killing all 298 passengers and crew on board. The plane was struck while flying over eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists had seized territory and were waging war against the Ukrainian military. The chain of events began when Russia moved its military into Crimea, which was part of Ukraine, earlier in the year.
There was international outrage at what appeared to be the shootdown of MH17 and suspicion immediately fell on the rebels and their Russian backers. The U.S. government pointed the finger in their direction but would not release classified satellite data it had to support its charges.
The demand for an investigation was strongest in the Netherlands, which had 193 citizens on board.
Two official investigations were immediately launched. The Dutch Safety Board began looking at how MH17 was brought down. Dutch prosecutors and police formed a Joint Investigative Team (JIT) with their counterparts from Australia, Belgium, Malaysia and Ukraine. All of those countries, except for Ukraine, had citizens on board MH17.
Members of the JIT agreed that if they developed enough material, that cases would be tried in a Dutch court.
There was also an unofficial investigation conducted by the newly formed online group known as Bellingcat, which began putting out its findings online within weeks of the crash. Early on, Bellingcat traced the path of a missile convoy through eastern Ukraine on the day of the shootdown and found video from the next morning showing the same convoy headed back towards the Russian border, with one of the missile missing from the launcher.
In October 2014, the group would identify the missile as belonging to Russia's 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade.
A year after the shootdown, 60 Minutes producer Henry Schuster and correspondent Scott Pelley began reporting for a segment about MH17.
"At this point, there was still so much to be learned," Schuster tells Overtime. "You had the Bellingcat investigations, but the Dutch safety board has not issued its report. The joint investigative team was not even at the point of issuing witness appeals."
Even though the official investigations were slow to progress, Schuster and his team continued with their research, speaking to next of kin on their loss, talking to prosecutors about the case and discussing with Eliot Higgins, Bellingcat founder, his open source investigative techniques. The team had even begun organizing a trip to rebel territory in Ukraine to re-trace the path of the missile that struck MH17, using Bellingcat data.
"For various reasons, we weren't able to go to Ukraine at that time so we put that story aside...[but] we always wanted to come back to it," Schuster says. "How could 298 people be shot out of the sky, and we don't do a piece about this? This wasn't a plane crash. This was a shoot-down. This was, you know, this was murder."
Schuster kept in touch with his sources and watched the case progress, waiting for the right time to "do the story that we were always meant to do."
"And then we got word that the Joint Investigative Team had announced that they were charging four men, and that there would be a trial in the Dutch courtroom this March," Schuster explains. "We thought, we have to come back."
The Dutch Safety Board had already published its findings, concluding that MH17 had been shot down by an anti-aircraft missile known as a Buk and that the trajectory of the missile indicated it had been fired from eastern Ukraine.
In May of 2018, nearly four years after the crash, the JIT announced that they believed the Buk missile installation that brought down MH17 was fired from rebel territory and it belonged to the Russian military. And in the summer of 2019, Dutch investigators announced the date of the first MH17 trial and the names of the four men being tried: Igor Girkin, Sergei Dubinsky and Oleg Pulatov from Russia, and Leonid Kharchenko from Ukraine. All were members of a pro-Russian rebel militia that was part of the self-declared Donetsk Peoples Republic. According to Schuster, these are the names of those "who asked for and brought the murder weapon," but investigators are still working to identify and bring to just those who manned the missile launcher that day.
The JIT is also investigating up the chain of command. In November it made a new appeal for witnesses and made public several phone intercepts between rebels and members of the Russian military. Among the names mentioned in those calls were the Russian defense minister, the deputy head of the FSB (Russia's internal security service) and an advisor to Russian president Vladimir Putin.
"The trial that's going to take place beginning in early March is the first trial, but it's by no means necessarily going to be the last trial for the shoot down of MH17...this is only their opening round," Schuster says. "The four men who have been charged, they're in one sense at the middle level...I mean, they're gonna go lower. They're gonna go higher. And this could go all the way to the Kremlin."