Four suspects charged with murder over shooting down of Flight MH17

Four people are to be prosecuted for their role in shooting down the MH17 flight and the death of all 298 people on board.

International arrest warrants for murder have been issued for Russians Igor Girkin, aged 48, Sergey Dubinskiy, 56, Oleg Pulatov, 52, and Ukraine national 47-year-old Leonid Kharchenko.

Some 100 individuals were investigated for potential links to transporting the Russian-made anti-aircraft missile which hit Malaysia Airlines plane as it flew over a part of eastern Ukraine held by Russian separatists.

Ten Britons were among the dead on June 17, 2014.

Almost exactly five years later, prosecutors in Nieuwegein in the Netherlands announced its first criminal case into the tragedy.

The Joint Investigation Team said its inquiry has established a direct link between the quartet, separatist rebels operating in Ukraine at the time and the Russian Federation.

The Joint Investigation Team outlined its case at a press conference on Wednesday. Credit: AP
  • What is known about the four suspects?

Igor Girkin: He is a former colonel in Russia's intelligence service, the FSB. Girkin was Minister of Defence and commander of the army of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic. He had direct contact with Moscow.

He said on Wednesday that "the insurgents did not shoot it down".

Sergey Dubinskiy: Employed by Russia's military intelligence agency, the GRU, he was Girkin's second in command, say prosecutors, and again, had direct access to the Russian Federation.

Oleg Pulatov: A former special forces soldier with Russia's elite Spetznaz unit, he was deputy head of intelligence services in Donetsk.

Leonid Kharchenko: The only one of the foursome to have no military background. Also known as Krot, he received his orders directly from Dubinskiy. In July 2014, prosecutors believe, he was in charge of a combat unit in the Donetsk region.

Debris from the aircraft was scattered over a large area. Credit: AP

Prosecutors say the quartet were responsible for organising the transportation of the BUK TELAR missile unit, originating from the 53rd Anti Aircraft Missile Brigade from Kursk in the Russian Federation, that ultimately fired upon the aircraft.

Prosecutor Fred Westerbeke said the team will not ask Russia and Ukraine to extradite four suspects, as the constitutions of both countries prohibit that.

"In the short term, we will ask Russia to hand the summons to the suspects who are in the Russian Federation," he said.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt described the warrants as a significant step towards getting justice for what was "a horrific crime".

He said: "The Russian Federation must now cooperate fully with the prosecution and provide any assistance it requests in accordance with UN Security Council resolution 2166.

"The charges brought against these individuals today show that the international community stands together against the impunity of those responsible for the despicable murder of 298 innocent people."

Among the British passengers killed was Liam Sweeney, 28, who was travelling with his friend John Alder to see their beloved Newcastle United play in New Zealand.

His father Barry Sweeney, 57, from Killingworth, North Tyneside, welcomed the development as a "step forward" while acknowledging the great difficulty of ever seeing any of the suspects in court.

He said: "It's not going to bring anyone back, but if I found out why it happened, it would bring a bit of closure."

Liam Sweeney was one of 10 Britons to die on board MH17. Credit: ITV News

Silene Fredriksz-Hoogzand, whose son Bryce and his girlfriend Daisy Oehlers were among the dead, expressed relief that someone was being held accountable.

"This is what we hoped for," she said, "this is a start of it. It is a good start."

She added she did not expect any of them to appear for the trial, which she said would start on March 9, 2020.

Investigators briefed families before they were due to hold a news conference.

Nearly two dozen Russian suspects were reportedly wanted for questioning in the incident.

The missile and launcher used in the incident were linked to an anti-aircraft brigade within the Russian military.

  • What happened to the Malaysian Airlines plane?

The plane had to take a slight diversion due to storms, but investigators found weather played no role in causing the crash. Credit: ITV News

A Dutch Safety Board report claimed the missile was a Russian-made 9N314M warhead installed on a Buk surface-to-air missile system.

The missile exploded outside and above the left side of the cockpit, causing the plane to break up in mid-air.

Wreckage was found over an area spanning 70 kilometres.

Above, the surface-to-air missile used to bring down MH17 - and below, the blast radius. Credit: Dutch Safety Board

Two military planes had been shot down over eastern Ukraine in the days before MH17 was hit, leading investigators to argue authorities should have recognised the potential risk to civil aircraft.

Investigators are confident the plane had no faults, the crew were properly qualified and the weather had no influence.

  • What has Russia said?

Vladimir Putin has denied Russia was involved. Credit: AP

The Kremlin has strenuously denied any involvement and over the years has come up with various theories.

While the Netherlands and Australia announced last year they believe the missile was transported to Ukraine from a military unit in Russian city Kursk, officials in Moscow said in September the missile came from the Ukrainian army.

After Dutch investigators displayed parts of the missile, Lt Gen Nikolai Parshin said Russian archives show the missile made of these parts was transported to a military unit in western Ukraine in 1986.

He said it never left Ukraine, to Russia’s knowledge.

Asked about the possibility that the separatists may have seized the missile system during fighting in 2014, Defence Ministry spokesperson Major Gen Igor Konashenkov conceded Russia does not have any documents proving otherwise, but pointed to the statements of Ukrainian officials who have denied that separatists seized any of their Buks.

Russian president Vladimir Putin last year noted a 2001 incident in which the Ukrainian army accidentally downed a Russian airliner over the Black Sea, killing all 78 people on board.