Defence at MH17 Hearing Suggests Ukrainian Armed Forces May Have Hit Plane by Mistake

The Ukrainian military may have hit the MH17 passenger plane in 2014 by mistake, Sabine ten Doesschate, the defence lawyer for Oleg Pulatov, said Tuesday.

The Dutch prosecutors consider the scenario unlikely, but the Ukrainian military had access to a large number of weapons, the lawyer said.

Ten Doesschate suggested that the Ukrainian military may have been mistaken, similarly to what happened in 2001 with Siberia Airlines Flight 1812, which was shot down over the Black Sea.

Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 crashed on 17 July 2014, in eastern Ukraine while en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, killing all 298 people aboard. The accident is being investigated by Dutch prosecutors and the Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team, which claim that the plane was hit by a Russian Buk missile. Moscow has repeatedly denied involvement in the incident.

Hearings in the case of the 2014 downing of flight MH17 in Ukraine resumed in the Dutch Schiphol Judicial Complex on Monday. At the current hearing, the defence is expected to present its position on issues that were previously raised by the prosecution, as well as voice its requests.

The prosecution, among other things, will have to explain why it requested more time to investigate the case against Pulatov before proceeding to consider his case on the merits.

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MH17 Suspect Admits ‘Moral Responsibility’ for Downing Jet

A Russian suspect in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 has said he feels “a moral responsibility” for the deaths of 298 people but refused to admit to downing the passenger jet, Britain’s The Times newspaper reported Wednesday.

Igor Girkin, 49, is one of three Russian suspects who, along with one Ukrainian suspect, are accused by a Dutch-led investigation of shooting down MH17 over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014, during the war between pro-Russian separatists and Kiev. None of the defendants, who are also charged with murdering MH17's passengers, are expected to attend their trial in the Netherlands, which has been suspended until June.

“In as much as I was the commander of the rebels and a participant in the conflict, I feel a moral responsibility for these deaths,” Girkin told The Times.

Girkin, a Russian army veteran and ex-Federal Security Service (FSB) officer, was adamant that the pro-Russian separatists under his command “did not bring down the plane.”

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Is Malaysia’s Position on MH17 Tragedy Shifting?

A long-awaited court trial of four suspects implicated in the July 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 began today (March 9) at The Hague in the Netherlands.

Three Russian nationals and one Ukrainian have been indicted for the murder of all 298 passengers aboard the ill-fated flight, which was shot down over eastern Ukraine more than five years ago.

“This is a significant milestone toward finding the truth and establishing justice for the victims of the flight MH17 tragedy,” read a March 7 statement issued by Malaysia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“For justice to prevail,” the statement said, will require a “credible and transparent process based on the rule of law.”

The statement is one of the first issued by Malaysia since Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin was sworn-in on March 1, and signals a distinct new tone from outgoing premier Mahathir Mohamad’s outlier position on the proceedings.

During his nearly two-year tenure, Mahathir alleged that the Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team (JIT) leading a probe into the disaster had been biased and politicized against Russia.

Though economic ties between Moscow and Putrajaya are modest, the two countries forged closer strategic links during Mahathir’s first and second premierships.

Malaysia’s perceived closeness to Russia, according to various Malaysian officials and reports, led to the Southeast Asian nation being stonewalled as the MH17 investigation unfolded.

While Muhyiddin’s days-old premiership is still taking shape, observers are closely watching whether or not his administration will echo past skepticism of the multinational probe.

Though Mahathir’s government did not oppose a trial, as a small number of civil society groups in Malaysia did, he claimed that evidence against the four accused was lacking and amounted to “hearsay.”

The then-premier’s remarks sparked diplomatic controversy and upset many of the victims’ next-of-kin. Mahathir’s positions, however, continue to be shared by some Malaysian officials who dealt firsthand with the disaster.

Fauziah Mohd Taib, Malaysia’s Ambassador to the Netherlands when the MH17 plane was shot down, is among them.

“From the beginning, I sensed it already. They were trying to keep me away, trying to keep Malaysia away [from the investigation],” the 64-year-old ex-diplomat said in an interview with Asia Times.

The retired envoy claimed that mutual distrust among countries in the JIT led to Malaysia being initially sidelined from the probe.

While Malaysia is part of the multinational JIT, along with Australia, Belgium, the Netherlands and Ukraine, the grouping’s investigation began without its participation, a sore point that influenced Mahathir’s stance.

As owner of the fallen aircraft, Malaysia was entitled to appoint observers to the probe and be briefed on its findings, according to International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) protocols.

But it was only invited to join the criminal probe as an equal member in late November 2014, over four months after MH17 was brought down on July 17.

Fauziah, however, said her country’s prosecutorial representative was only allowed to attend meetings related to the criminal probe in March 2015.

“This is our airplane, our people were also there, all the crew members were Malaysian. Why are we not in the investigation? I found the Dutch to be pulling back when we talk about it,” she said.

“We wanted to join in the JIT from the beginning. We could join the Dutch Safety Board (DSB) daily briefings, which I attended,” she said in reference to the board’s civilian investigation tasked with determining the cause of the crash.

Malaysia, she said, was initially kept out of legal deliberations to apportion blame and criminal charges against suspects.

“They only wanted people from the prosecutor’s office. So, if you are not a lawyer, not a prosecutor, you cannot come in. Even then, there was no official invitation for us. There was no clearance, yet we insisted on being equal partners,” she said.

The veteran diplomat claimed Malaysia’s cordial ties with Russia were cause for it to be isolated from the process.

“I received some information from my colleagues in the Netherlands that it was Ukraine who didn’t want us in because they think we are quite inclined to Russia,” Fauziah said. “But we never made any statement to say that we are pro-Russia or anti-Ukraine. There were no statements, official statements or even implied statements.”

In 2016, investigators concluded that the Malaysian aircraft was hit by a Russian-made Buk-9M38 series missile fired from rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatist militias and government forces were engaged in fierce combat. Moscow denies charges that it supplied the missile system which brought down the plane.

The Netherlands and Australia announced in May 2018 that they would hold the Russian state legally responsible for the downing of MH17. Dutch media later reported that Malaysia was only notified of the politically sensitive move just prior to its announcement over fears that it would relay those intentions to Moscow through diplomatic backchannels.

Fauziah claimed that the JIT’s practice of keeping Malaysia at a diplomatic arm’s length helped to validate perceptions of Russia being politically scapegoated by the probe, a position that Mahathir repeatedly affirmed to the bewilderment of public opinion in the Netherlands, which lost 198 of its citizens in the disaster, and elsewhere.

The former Malaysian envoy did not dispute Russia’s support for the rebels in eastern Ukraine, though she claimed Moscow’s own version of events were not examined by the probe. “Because [the JIT] were apportioning blame from the beginning, I think the Russian side should have been given the opportunity to explain themselves,” she said.

“You’ve already blamed Russia and you have already started to enforce sanctions. Why are you doing this when you don’t know yet? That was what I told them,” Fauziah said in reference to economic sanctions levelled against Moscow by the United States and the European Union on July 29, 2014 over its role in the MH17 incident.

“From there I noticed there was this ‘you are not my friend’ kind of feeling. You can see it’s a geopolitical game already. Immediately, you have all finger-pointing to Russia. They were taking advantage of the victims of the incident to come up with something they’ve been waiting for, an opportunity,” she claimed.

It is unlikely that those sentiments will inform the Muhyiddin administration’s stance toward the trial, which is expected to continue throughout 2020. Despite Mahathir’s contrarian position, his government had formally endorsed the JIT’s findings while calling for transparent scrutiny of existing evidence and the gathering of additional data.

There is at least one indication that the new Malaysian government seeks to quiet internal critics.

Colonel Mohd Sakri Hussin, the chief negotiator of a Malaysian team that covertly entered rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine to retrieve MH17’s flight data recorders and victim remains, had been due to speak at a documentary screening in London on March 3.

Sakri and Mahathir appeared in the online investigative documentary MH17 – Call for Justice and the former had travelled to the United Kingdom to take part in the event’s panel discussion.

Event co-organizer Bonanza Media confirmed to Asia Times that Muhyiddin’s newly-appointed government requested the colonel not to address the gathering, to which he complied.

At present, Dutch prosecutors hold four individuals responsible for the downing of MH17: Russian nationals Sergey Dubinsky, Oleg Pulatov and Igor Girkin, and Ukrainian, Leonid Kharchenko.

None of the four suspects were crew members of the vehicle that fired the missile, but are believed to have colluded with those who carried out the attack.

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Malaysian Ministry denies new MH370 search attempt

The Malaysian Ministry of Transport has denied agreeing to a new search mission for the missing wreckage of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370. There have been two official search missions to find the airplane, missing since 2014. The latest effort, carried out by a private company, ended in 2018.

The Malaysian Ministry of Transport states has not made any decision to relaunch a new search mission for the wreckage of Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777. In a written statement, dated February 10, 2020, the authority refuted claims allegedly made by news report that states otherwise.

“While the Ministry of Transport deeply empathizes with the family members of the victims and stands by them, the Ministry has not made any decision to relaunch any new searches as there has not been any new credible evidence to initiate such a process,” the statement reads.

The Malaysian authority also states it would review any new evidence if it officially received it. However, the decision to re-launch the search for MH370 would require consultation with China and Australia.