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Rights court agrees to hear cases against Russia over eastern Ukraine conflict

On top of four cases brought by Ukraine and the Netherlands, there are some 8,500 individual complaints pending before the European Court of Human Rights against Russia stemming from the nearly decadelong conflict.

STRASBOURG, France (CN) — In a highly anticipated decision, Europe’s top rights court announced Wednesday it has jurisdiction to rule on most parts of a group of complaints brought by Ukraine and the Netherlands against the Russian Federation. 

The European Court of Human Rights accepted three cases alleging Moscow has been committing human rights violations in eastern Ukraine since 2014, including the downing of passenger jet Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, also known as MH17.

The Strasbourg-based court heard arguments in the case almost exactly one year ago. Russia denied it had control over the region, claiming the pro-Russia separatist groups operating in the area had no state support. 

The Grand Chamber, however, disagreed and found that Moscow was the authority in the region. 

 “The Russian Federation had effective control over the relevant parts of Donbas,” the court wrote in Wednesday's decision. 

Moscow officially recognized the Donetsk People's Republic and the Luhansk People's Republic, two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine, following widely condemned votes in May of last year. Only Syria and North Korea have also recognized the republics.

The 17-judge panel said there was “clear evidence” that the Kremlin supplied weapons and fighters to the separatists and held sway over their political and military strategy. 

The court joined three cases arising from the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Kyiv also brought a fourth complaint about the annexation of Crimea, which the court ruled was within its jurisdiction in 2021. Russia followed with a counterclaim of its own, alleging mistreatment of the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine. 

The case was the last time Russia appeared before the court. The Council of Europe, the court’s oversight body, expelled Russia after it launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year. The country then ceased to be a member of the court, though cases brought before it departed can still continue. No Russian representative attended the reading of the decision Wednesday.

Piet Ploeg, who lost his brother, sister-in-law and nephew in the MH17 disaster, sat in the front row as the court’s president read the ruling. Many family members of victims want the Russian state to be held accountable for the deaths of their loved ones. “We are the first international victims of Russia’s war,” Ploeg, who is also the chair of the MH17 Disaster Foundation, told Courthouse News in an interview last year. 

The court also accepted jurisdiction for some 400 individual claims against Russia brought by the relatives killed in the crash. There are more than 8,000 individual claims stemming from the conflict in eastern Ukraine alone. In total, Russia is facing more than 17,000 complaints of human rights abuses before the court. 

Both Ukraine and the Netherlands were pleased with the jurisdiction decision Wednesday.

“Today’s judgment, shows that President Putin cannot escape the long arm of international law,” Ben Emmerson, who is representing Ukraine, said in a statement. 

“Today's decision is a crucial next step in the case that the Netherlands has filed against Russia,” Dutch Foreign Affairs Minister Wopke Hoekstra said in a statement. He went on to pledge to continue to fight for the victims. The Netherlands and Australia launched a case at the International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations body, alleging Russian responsibility for the crash. 

The court will now consider the case on the merits and a final decision could take years. 

In November, The Hague District Court convicted three men and acquitted one of supplying the surface-to-air missile which shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, killing all 298 people on board, in July 2014. The Boeing 777  took off from Amsterdam en route to Kuala Lumpur and the majority of the victims were Dutch. 

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Categories / Civil Rights, Government, International, Politics

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