Two Russians and a Ukrainian were sentenced to life in prison for causing the MH17 crash above the Ukrainian region of Donetsk in 2014, killing all 298 on board, The Hague District Court decided on Thursday.
Russians Igor Girkin, Sergey Dubinskiy and Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko were found responsible for the disaster, Presiding Judge Hendrik Steenhuis said.
Another Russian national, Oleg Polatov, was acquitted of the charges.
The court declared that Girkin, Dubinskiy and Kharchenko must also compensate the relatives of the victims a total of €60 million. Prosecutors and the defendants have two weeks to file an appeal.
The quartet on trial were not present in the courtroom. All at large, they refused to attend the trial, which lasted two and a half years.
Girkin, Dubinskiy and Kharchenko are unlikely to ever serve their sentences.
MH17 victims remembered by loved ones present at sentencing
The verdict comes more than eight years after the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was blown out of the sky on 17 July 2014 amid a conflict between pro-Russia rebels and Ukrainian forces.
The plane was struck by what the Dutch court established was a missile supplied by Moscow and broke up mid-air, scattering wreckage and bodies over farmland and fields of sunflowers in the Ukrainian region of Donetsk.
The MH17 crash is the deadliest aircraft crash caused by weapons to this date, resulting in the death of all 283 passengers and 15 crew members.
The flight was codeshared with the Dutch company KLM. A total of 193 victims were Dutch nationals. Australian and Dutch teams were in charge of the investigation.
Families of many of the victims were present for the sentencing on Thursday, and some blinked away tears as Steenhuis highlighted how their lives were changed forever on that day.
Steenhuis described the torment of family members who had to wait for the remains of their relatives. “A piece of bone from a hand. A piece of leg or a foot. In two cases, no parts of a loved one returned.”
The missile launcher is said to have come from the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade, a unit of the Russian armed forces based in the Russian city of Kursk and was driven back there after MH17 was shot down.
The court ruled that the three men – Russians Igor Girkin and Sergey Dubinskiy, and Ukrainian separatist Leonid Kharchenko — worked together to bring the Buk missile system into Ukraine and bring it into position for its launch.
“There is no reasonable doubt possible,” Steenhuis said, dismissing defence arguments that something might have happened to the plane.
And even if the shooting down of MH17 might have amounted to a military miscalculation, Steenhuis said, “such an error did not change the intent.”
Zelenskyy hails ‘important’ decision, no comment from Moscow
Girkin is a 51-year-old former colonel in Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB.
At the time of the downing, he was defence minister and commander of the armed forces of the self-proclaimed Moscow-backed Donetsk People’s Republic.
Girkin, an outspoken far-right nationalist, is reportedly involved in Russia’s aggression on Ukraine.
The other three men who were put on trial are Girkin’s subordinates. Prosecutors say Kharchenko was commander of a pro-Russia separatist combat unit and took orders directly from Dubinskiy.
Pulatov is the only one of the suspects who was represented by defence lawyers at the trial, pleading not guilty on his behalf.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the MH17 court decision was a vital first step in assigning responsibility for the crime, but he added that more prosecutions and convictions were needed.
“It is an important decision in the court in The Hague. … It is necessary that those who ordered it also find themselves in the dock, because impunity leads to new crimes,” he said on Twitter.
Moscow meanwhile said the Dutch court’s decision “neglected impartiality”.
“We will study this decision. On all of these questions, every nuance has meaning, therefore after studying this judicial document, we will be ready to comment on it,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ivan Nechaev said.
The Dutch government said on Friday it had summoned the Russian ambassador to the Netherlands over Moscow’s “utterly despicable” response to the verdict.