MH17: prosecutors to identify suspects and file first charges

The charges are likely to target members of a Russia-backed separatist movement and may include Russian servicemen who commanded or helped transport the anti-aircraft missile system used to bring down the plane.

Dutch prosecutors are set to identify suspects and file the first criminal charges over the 2014 downing over east Ukraine of flight MH17 that left 298 people dead in the worst atrocity in five years of war between Ukraine and Russia-backed separatists.

The charges will raise tensions with Russia, which is unlikely to turn over its citizens, especially those in uniform, to stand trial in a foreign country or at the international criminal court. Russia’s constitution forbids the extradition of its citizens.

The Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team (JIT) is set to present new evidence in the MH17 investigation on Wednesday, and is expected to name its first four suspects in the case.

The JIT previously alleged that the surface-to-air missile that brought down the plane belonged to the Russian armed forces and had been supplied by the country’s 53rd anti-aircraft brigade in Kursk. Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, disregarded those findings, saying the investigation “did not inspire confidence” and that “several versions” of events existed.

Ukraine’s foreign ministry on Tuesday also confirmed that criminal charges would be brought against the suspects named in the JIT’s presentation.

“The names will be announced. Charges will be brought. After that, the criminal court of Schiphol will start working to consider this case,” Ukraine’s deputy minister of foreign affairs, Olena Zerkal, told the news agency Interfax-Ukraine. “They are only the top. Naturally, then the number of people who are involved in this will be much larger than the four people who will be named.”

The news agency said that Zerkal believed the charges could target “senior officers” in the Russian army because the transfer of a surface-to-air missile system “is impossible without the top brass’s permission”.

The charges are likely to be brought in the Netherlands because the majority of the passengers aboard the Boeing 777 flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur were Dutch. According to official information, the Malaysia Airlines plane was carrying 193 Dutch, 43 Malaysian, 38 Australian, 12 Indonesian, and 10 British passengers, as well as one passenger from New Zealand.

The investigative collective Bellingcat, which collected and analysed open-source data about the attack on the Malaysia Airlines flight 17, will also make a presentation on Wednesday identifying “separatists involved in the downing of MH17”.

Bellingcat has written extensively on the case. Last year it identified one of the Russian military intelligence officers allegedly involved as Oleg Ivannikov, a career GRU officer who operated undercover in rebel-controlled Luhansk in eastern Ukraine under the cover names “Orion” and “Andrey Ivanovich”, the website said.

The downing of the jet came in the first months of a bitter war between Ukraine’s army and Russia-backed separatists that has left more than 13,000 people dead. While Ukraine’s army held air superiority in the conflict, separatist forces mysteriously began shooting down Ukrainian jet fighters and troop transports, and Russia was suspected of providing them with anti-aircraft missile systems.

Pro-separatist sites initially welcomed the downing of MH17, believing the plane to be an An-26 troop transport, before discovering that a passenger jet had been targeted.

A Dutch news programme, Nieuwsuur, has named several MH17 suspects, including Sergei Muchkaev, commander of the 53rd anti-aircraft brigade in Kursk, a former Ukrainian serviceman accused of collaborating with separatist forces, and several alleged members of Russian military intelligence, commonly referred to as GRU. It is unclear if they will be among the suspects identified on Wednesday.

Dutch authorities have revealed few details about the upcoming announcement. The chief Dutch prosecutor, Fred Westerbeke, wrote to relatives last week and invited them to a briefing on Wednesday in Nieuwegein, near Utrecht. The Dutch Joint Investigation Team (JIT) said it would inform them about the latest developments in the criminal case into the downing of flight MH17, Westerbeke said.

The closed meeting for family members will take place ahead of a press conference scheduled for 1pm local time on Wednesday. The short notice was due to the “importance of secrecy”, Westerbeke told relatives of the victims.

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