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Three men convicted over downing of MH17 in eastern Ukraine in early days of Russia's war

More than eight years after a missile slammed into Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board, three men have been found guilty of murder and intentionally causing the downing of the plane by an international court in the Hague, Netherlands. One other man was acquitted of all charges. The Boeing 777 was shot down by a missile in 2014 amid fighting between Russian-backed rebels and Ukrainian forces.

Presiding Judge Hendrik Steenhuis opened the Thursday hearing by saying the court took the view that "MH17 was brought down by a [Russian-made] Buk missile." He also said the court believed that the part of eastern Ukraine where the shooting occurred — the separatist, self-declared Donetsk People's Republic — was "under Russian Federation control" at the time of the tragedy.

The judge found the defendants Igor Girkin, Sergey Dubinskiy and Leonid Kharchenko, two of whom are Russian and one of whom is Ukrainian, guilty in absentia and ruled they were jointly liable for the equivalent of approximately 16.5 million dollars in damages to the victims' next of kin. They were each sentenced to life in prison, though they are believed to currently be in Russia extradition is unlikely.

Oleg Pulatov, who is Russian and the only suspect who had legal defense during the proceedings, was acquitted of all charges.

Russia's foreign ministry said it would "examine" the Dutch court's opinion that the missile used to shoot down the MH17 was a Russian-made Buk.

Hundreds of victims' family members traveled to the high security courtroom near Amsterdam's Schipol Airport on Thursday to hear the verdict in the long-running case, which began in March 2020.

"I still miss them," Silene Fredriksz, whose son was killed on MH17 along with his girlfriend, told CBS News partner network BBC News ahead of the verdict. "Putin has never been stopped, and still has not been stopped... I hope the world wakes up now, because we knew it already eight years ago."

An Emergencies Ministry member walks at a site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region, July 17, 2014. REUTERS

What happened to MH17?

On July 17, 2014, Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 took off from Amsterdam's Schipol Aiport on its way to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The 298 people on board included 15 crew members and 80 children.

At the time, Russia was early into its campaign to sieze control of parts of eastern Ukraine, and the region was considered a low-level conflict zone. Due to some military planes being shot down, Ukraine had closed the airspace over the area at altitudes below 32,000 feet.

MH17 was flying over Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region, but 1,000 feet above the restricted airspace, when it lost contact with air traffic control. The wreckage of the plane was scattered across fields of sunflowers and farmland.

Ukraine rebels move bodies to trains, take control of black boxes 02:15

An international investigation into the cause of the explosion found that the plane was shot down by a Russian-made Buk missile, launched by a Buk TELAR installation that had been transported to a field in eastern Ukraine.

Investigators said the missile launcher came from Russia's 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade and had been transported across the Ukraine border from the western Russian city of Kursk, to which it was returned after MH17 was downed.

The verdict

The defendants — Igor Girkin, Sergey Dubinskiy, Oleg Pulatov, and Leonid Kharchenko — three of whom are Russian and one of whom is Ukrainian, were accused of working together to get the missile that hit MH17 into the field from which it was fired. They were also accused of the murder of everyone on board the plane.

Girkin, the most senior of the defendants, was the defense secretary of the self-declared, Russian-backed Donetsk People's Republic at the time of the shooting, as well as the commander of its armed forces. He is believed to currently be involved in Russia's ongoing war in Ukraine, the Associated Press reports.

NATO says missile that killed 2 in Poland was not an intentional attack 05:58

The other defendants were Girkin's subordinates. Pulatov, who was acquitted, had legal representation that argued the prosecution was not paying enough attention to other possible causes of the tragedy and only relying on the results of the international investigation into the shooting down of the plane.

"What matters to me is that the truth is revealed," Pulatov said in a video recording played in court during the trial. "It's important for me that my country is not blamed for this tragedy."

Pulatov was acquitted because it was not proven that he was sufficiently involved in the transport and launch of the Buk missile, Marieke de Hoon, a Dutch law professor, said on Twitter.

Russia has put forward many alternate theories for the downing of MH17, which have been debunked by experts and analysts, and has always denied its involvement in the incident.

Eliot Higgins, the founder of the Bellingcat organization, which examined open source information about the downing of MH17 that he shared with Dutch prosecutors, told the BBC ahead of the ruling that, if there were guilty verdicts, "anyone who would claim that Russia wasn't involved with this shoot down is really a ridiculous person."

Higgins said Russia's actions in Ukraine in 2014 and its current invasion of the country are connected.

"Policymakers just weren't comfortable with calling out Russia in a way they really should have done, Higgins said. "They didn't react in the way that could have prevented the invasion in 2022." 

"If justice is not being done, then your whole feeling of a good world doesn't exist anymore. So getting justice brought to you by so many people gives a good feeling and, I hope, will give some peace about this subject," Hans de Borst, whose daughter was killed in the downing of the plane, told the BBC. "There was the disaster itself, but the next disaster, I would say, was that Russia never cooperated. And that gave extra pain for all of us. And why was that necessary? Just say sorry."

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