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Three men convicted of shooting down passenger jet over eastern Ukraine

Traveling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, MH17 was shot out of the sky eight years ago over an area of Ukraine that was under Russian control.

SCHIPHOL, Netherlands (CN) — At a highly secured facility just miles from the airport where Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 departed in July 2014, a Dutch court on Thursday convicted three men of downing the Boeing 777 and killing all 298 people on board.

The judges of The Hague District Court took two hours to read the judgment before a packed courtroom, with relatives of victims spilling over into adjacent rooms.

The court found Igor Girkin, Sergei Dubinsky and Leonid Kharchenko guilty, while a fourth man, Oleg Pulatov, was acquitted of all charges. 

To the satisfaction of many of the relatives, Presiding Judge Hendrik Steenhuis empathized that the Russian state played a role in the tragedy. “There is an abundance of evidence,” he said, that MH17 was shot down by a Buk surface-to-air missile from an area of eastern Ukraine that was under Russian control. 

The downing of the plane on July 17, 2014, and the subsequent investigation and trial has been mired in a misinformation campaign from Moscow, which has denied any involvement in the crash.

Thursday's ruling emphatically rejected conspiracy theories surrounding MH17. The court said accusations that Ukraine shot down the plane or the CIA was somehow involved were "entirely unconvincing."

Many of the relatives, who have been waiting more than eight years for justice, were happy with the verdict. "We are very satisfied," said Ria van der Steen, whose father and stepmother were killed in the crash. 

Others cautioned that although they were grateful the trial had taken place, nothing would bring their loved ones back.

“There are no winners,” Jordan Withers told reporters after the hearing. He lost his uncle in the crash and traveled from the United Kingdom to attend. More than 200 relatives were at the hearing, nearly 80 of whom traveled from abroad to be there in person. 

Girkin, Dubinsky, and Kharchenko were given life sentences, though none are in Dutch custody. The three men were tried in absentia and are believed to be in Russia.

Pulatov, who is also in Russia, was acquitted after retaining counsel. 

Girkin, the highest-ranking defendant, was a former colonel in Russia's intelligence service, the FSB. At the time, he was serving as the minister of defense for the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, the breakaway Ukrainian state where the disaster occurred.

Both Dubinsky and Pulatov had previously worked for the GRU, Russia's military intelligence agency. Dubinsky was acting as the DPR's intelligence chief with Pulatov serving as his deputy. Kharchenko, the lone Ukrainian, had no previous military experience but was commanding a rebel group during the conflict. 

Ukraine agreed to turn prosecution of the disaster over to the Netherlands, which lost 196 people in the crash. The effort made by the Dutch legal system for the proceedings has been enormous. The case file runs more than 70,000 pages — the largest in Dutch history.

“This is yet another step in the pursuit of truth and justice for the victims,” Dutch Prime Minster Mark Rutte said in a statement Thursday after the verdict was read.

The court also awarded some 16 million euros ($16.5 million) in damages to the victims' families, to be paid by the defendants. The Dutch state will likely pay the relatives - who were awarded between 40,000 and 50,000 euros ($41,000 to $52,000) depending on their relationship to the victim - and attempt to recoup the money from the three men. 

Both sides now have 14 days to appeal, although an appeal from the defendants seems unlikely as the three convicted men have had no official contact with the court.

Digna van Boetzelaer from the Dutch Public Prosecution Service said her office will study the verdict and consider whether to appeal Pulatov's acquittal.

"We would want any appeal to have meaning," she told Courthouse News after the hearing. 

The Dutch government is currently pursuing several other legal avenues to bring justice for the victims of MH17. Earlier this year, the European Court of Human Rights heard arguments in a complaint originally brought by Ukraine and then joined by the Netherlands over the long-running conflict in the eastern part of the country. The Dutch argued that Russia had control over the region when the plane was downed and is therefore responsible for the tragedy. Russia left the Council of Europe, which oversees the court, following its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, but proceedings that were initiated before it withdrew will continue.

The Netherlands has also, together with Australia, launched a case at the United Nations’ aviation body, the International Civil Aviation Organization, arguing the Russian Federation violated the 1944 Chicago Convention in downing the passenger jet.

In 2019, the International Court of Justice, the U.N.'s high court, accepted jurisdiction in a case brought by Ukraine against Russia, alleging that Moscow illegally financed separatist groups in eastern Ukraine, including those who are accused of shooting down MH17. Kyiv is pursuing a separate case at the same court over the invasion by Russia earlier this year. 

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