NIEUWEGEIN, Netherlands (Reuters) - Three Russians and a Ukrainian will face murder charges for the deaths of 298 people aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 that was shot down over eastern Ukraine in 2014, the international investigative team said on Wednesday.
The suspects are likely to be tried in absentia in proceedings set to start in the Netherlands next March. Dutch authorities said Russia has not cooperated with the inquiry and is not expected to surrender defendants.
“These suspects are seen to have played an important role in the death of 298 innocent civilians,” Dutch Chief Prosecutor Fred Westerbeke said. “Although they did not push the button themselves, we suspect them of close cooperation to get the (missile launcher) where it was, with the aim to shoot down an airplane.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry denied that it had not cooperated while saying on Wednesday the investigation was intended to damage Moscow’s reputation.
“Once again, absolutely groundless accusations are being made against the Russian side, aimed at discrediting the Russian Federation in the eyes of the international community,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Dutch Justice Minister Ferdinand Grapperhaus said in a letter to parliament the Netherlands had taken unspecified “diplomatic steps” against Moscow for failing to fully comply with legal requests or providing incorrect information.
MH17 was shot out of the sky on July 17, 2014, over territory held by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine as it was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. Everyone aboard died.
The Dutch-led international team tasked with assigning criminal responsibility for the plane’s destruction named the four suspects as Russians Sergey Dubinsky, Oleg Pulatov and Igor Girkin, and Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko. It said international arrest warrants for the four had been issued.
Girkin, 48, a vocal and battle-hardened Russian nationalist, is believed to live in Moscow where he makes regular public appearances. He is a commentator on Russian and foreign affairs via his own website and YouTube channel.
“The rebels did not shoot down the Boeing,” Girkin told Reuters on Wednesday without elaborating.
Ukrainian authorities said they would try to detain Kharchenko, who is believed to be on their territory.
“The Russian Federation must now cooperate fully with the prosecution and provide any assistance it requests,” British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said. There were 10 Britons on the flight.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged Russia in a statement to “ensure that any indicted individuals currently in Russia face justice.”
Most of the passengers were Dutch. The joint investigation team formed by Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, the Netherlands and Ukraine found that the plane was downed by a Russian missile.
Last year Russian President Vladimir Putin called MH17’s downing a “terrible tragedy” but said Moscow was not to blame and there were other explanations for what happened.
Asked if she expected the suspects to attend the trial, Silene Fredriksz, whose son Bryce was on the plane, said: “No, I don’t think so. But I don’t care. I just want the truth, and this is the truth.”
The investigation team said Girkin was a former Russian FSB security service colonel who served as minister of defence of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) in eastern Ukraine in the summer of 2014.
It said Dubinsky was head of the military intelligence agency of DNR, while Pulatov headed a second department of the agency. Kharchenko was head of a reconnaissance battalion for the second department, it said.
Prosecutors have said the missile system that brought down the airliner came from the Russian 53rd Anti-Aircraft Brigade, based in the western Russian city of Kursk.
Additional reporting by Bart Meijer in Amsterdam; Christian Lowe, Anastasia Teterevleva and Maria Vasilyeva in Moscow; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Leslie Adler