An international team of investigators said there were “strong indications” that Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized the delivery of missiles to the separatists who shot down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014.
But members of the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) in the Netherlands said they did not have enough evidence to prosecute any more suspects and suspended their eight-and-a-half-year investigation into the tragedy. And Putin as head of state has immunity.
MH17 was shot down by a Russian missile launched from eastern Ukraine while en route to Kuala Lumpur from Amsterdam on July 17, 2014. All 298 people on board the Boeing 777 were killed.
Russia has denied involvement in the incident and refused to cooperate with the international investigation.
“There are strong indications that a decision was made at the presidential level, by President Putin, to deliver… the Buk TELAR missile system,” Dutch prosecutor Digna van Boetzelaer said on Wednesday.
Investigators have already confirmed that the Buk downed the Malaysian airliner, which was flying at an altitude of 33,000 feet (10 km).
“Although we are talking about strong indications, the high bar of complete and conclusive evidence has not been reached,” she said at a press conference in The Hague.
The announcement comes less than three months after a Dutch court convicted two Russians and a Ukrainian of manslaughter over the disaster. The three men – Russians Igor Girkin and Sergey Dubinsky and Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko – failed to appear at trial and are unlikely to ever serve their life sentences.
Some 196 of those who died in the crash were from the Netherlands, and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said that while the JIT’s decision to drop the investigation was a “bitter disappointment”, the Dutch government would “continue to hold the Russian Federation accountable”. .
Australia, home of the 38 passengers, promised the same.
Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong and Attorney General Mark Dreyfus said Russia had repeatedly tried to thwart the investigation.
“Russia’s illegal and immoral invasion of Ukraine and lack of cooperation with the investigation have made ongoing investigative efforts and evidence gathering impossible at this time,” they said in a joint statement Thursday.
Australia would “hold Russia accountable for its role in the downing of the civilian airliner,” they added.
Chain of command
Russia condemned last year’s court verdict in which the three were convicted as “scandalous” and politically motivated.
The JIT – made up of the Netherlands, Malaysia, Australia, Belgium and Ukraine – said, however, that the chain of command was clear.
Russian officials even delayed a decision to send weapons to Ukrainian separatists because Putin was attending D-Day commemorations in France in June 2014, they said, releasing a wiretap of an adviser who said the delay was “because there is only one decision-maker. .. the person who is currently at the summit in France”.
Putin himself could also be heard talking about a “military component” in another conversation with a separatist leader from Ukraine’s Luhansk region.
The families of the victims said they were disappointed by the decision to suspend the investigation.
“We hoped for more, but we didn’t count on it,” said the president of the MH17 Foundation, Piet Ploeg, who lost a brother, sister-in-law and nephew in the disaster.
Investigators said they believe they accomplished more in 2014 than they thought possible.
“Are we disappointed? No, because we think we’ve come further than we ever thought we would in 2014. Would we like to come further? Of course, yes,” said Andy Kraag from the Dutch police, adding that “the answer remains in Russia.”
Van Boetzelaer said that while the investigation is suspended, the phone lines will remain open for possible witnesses who may still want to give evidence. If this happens, the query could be reactivated.
There are also other cases related to MH17.
The Dutch and Ukrainian governments are suing Russia at the European Court of Human Rights, while the Dutch and Australian governments have also initiated proceedings before the International Civil Aviation Organization.
The findings released Wednesday are likely to strengthen the case at the human rights court and could be used by International Criminal Court prosecutors investigating possible war crimes in Ukraine dating back to the start of the separatist conflict.