Hope for MH17 victims' families after suspects named, charges filed

The reconstructed front part of the Malaysia Airlines plane at the Gilze-Rijen Air Force Base, in the Netherlands, in 2015. Parts of the cockpit and business class section were reconstructed from wreckage retrieved from Ukraine and taken to the Nethe
The reconstructed front part of the Malaysia Airlines plane at the Gilze-Rijen Air Force Base, in the Netherlands, in 2015. Parts of the cockpit and business class section were reconstructed from wreckage retrieved from Ukraine and taken to the Netherlands, where the investigation was based.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

But Mahathir criticises the charges, saying investigators were hasty in blaming Russia

News that four suspects have been named for downing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 in July 2014 has brought new hope for the family members of the victims who are seeking closure and justice for their loved ones.

Almost five years after the tragedy, the mother of MH17 co-pilot Ahmad Hakimi Hanapi said she could breathe a sigh of relief.

"I am happy as we will finally know who shot down the plane and how it happened. My son was killed and I hope they will be punished for what they did," 66-year-old Noriah Daud was quoted as saying by Malaysian news site The Star Online yesterday. "His son is now six years old and he wants to know how his father died."

International investigators have levelled murder charges against three Russians and a Ukrainian whom they said were responsible for shooting down the aircraft over Russia-controlled Ukraine, killing all 298 on board.

In Malaysia, a cousin of victim Ariza Ghazalee also voiced his gratitude, adding that the family has been patient for five years.

"We never stopped praying that justice will be on the side of the victims," Mr Zurisdi Mohd Zol, 51, from Kuching, Sarawak, told Bernama news agency. "The incident was clearly an international murder and we hope that the suspects would be charged soon."

In Australia, Ms Meryn O'Brien, who lost her 25-year-old son, Jack, in the incident, praised the "careful and meticulous" work of investigators. "It was hard to look at their faces on the screen," she told Australian daily The Sydney Morning Herald. "It stood out to us that they named what happened as murder... We were most impressed with the clear statements about the lack of cooperation from the Russian Federation. The involvement of the (Russian government in the incident) has been firmly established."

 
 

But in a surprising turn of events, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was critical of the charges, labelling the move a political plot against Russia.

"We are very unhappy. From the very beginning, it became a political issue... Even before they examined the case, they already claimed it (the attack) was done by Russia," he told reporters yesterday. "So far, there is no proof, only hearsay. This is a ridiculous thing. Someone shoots a gun and you are not able to see who, but you know who shot."

At Wednesday's press conference in the Netherlands, Malaysia's representative on the investigation team said his government supported the probe, including its latest conclusions. The investigators come from Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, the Netherlands and Ukraine.

In Australia, the parents of three young children killed in the tragedy said their lives had been turned upside down, but things improved when they welcomed a fourth child two years later. Little Mo, 12, Evie, 10, and Otis, eight, were flying with their grandfather Nick when the plane was shot down.

"We started to think about the possibility of having another child... because it was a tiny little glimmer of hope that our lives might not be continuously and forever just loss," Ms Marite Norris was quoted as saying in a Herald report on June 10.

As she held Violet in her arms, she said: "It was like, 'Wow, a little bit of peace has come back into my life'."


Issues surrounding the charges

NIEUWEGEIN (Netherlands) • The announcement on Wednesday of charges over the downing of Flight MH17 has raised key questions, from whether the suspects will ever appear in court to why senior Russians are not being prosecuted. Here are the main issues:

1 WHAT ARE THE SUSPECTS ACCUSED OF?

Each suspect faces two criminal charges: first, "crashing Flight MH17, resulting in the death of all passengers"; and second, "the murder of the 298 occupants of Flight MH17".

Investigators admitted that the three Russians and one Ukrainian charged had "not pushed the button themselves" on the BUK missile that brought down the Malaysia Airlines plane five years ago.

 
 

But Dutch prosecutor Fred Westerbeke told a press conference it was enough that the four had "closely cooperated to obtain the BUK and put it in position on the launch site with the goal to shoot a plane".

He added: "In Dutch criminal law, persons who are not present themselves during the implementation of a crime but play an important organising role are just as punishable as the persons who actually committed the crime."

2 WHY WERE THERE NO OTHERS CHARGED?

Ahead of Wednesday's announcement, expectations ran high that the Russian top brass would be among those charged, based on a statement by a Ukrainian minister and reports in Dutch media.

Instead, all four suspects turned out to be senior figures in the separatist Donetsk People's Republic in eastern Ukraine, rather than the Russian military itself.

Dutch police chief Wilbert Paulissen said on Wednesday the "investigation towards prosecution of other suspects will proceed".

Investigators were hunting the crew that operated the BUK missile system, believed to be about four people, "and people who formed the link in the Russian chain of command".

Mr Westerbeke said they simply did not have enough evidence yet to secure criminal convictions of other suspects. "We want to go as far as we can get," he said, appealing for more witnesses.

3 WILL SUSPECTS EVER APPEAR IN COURT?

Investigators admitted it was unlikely that the suspects would appear in the dock in the Netherlands.

 
 

The Russian and Ukrainian Constitutions forbid extradition of their nationals to any other country, Mr Westerbeke said.

"I am a realist, meaning that I don't think the odds are now on our side," he said, adding that Russia had so far refused to cooperate.

"That is a slap in the face to the bereaved, and I call out to them (Russia) to start cooperating."

Under Dutch law, however, the men can be tried in their absence, meaning "the criminal trial will take place even when the suspects choose not to be present".

The trial is due to start on March 9 next year at a high-security court in Schiphol - close to the airport where the doomed flight took off.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 21, 2019, with the headline 'Hope for victims' families after suspects named, charges filed'. Print Edition | Subscribe