And suddenly there was the voice of Vladimir Putin in the press room – on a wiretapped conversation of the JIT, the international investigation team into the shooting down of flight MH17.
It is a phone call from 2017 between the Russian president and Igor Plotnitsky, the then ‘head’ of the ‘Luhansk People’s Republic’ that had split from Ukraine. Putin keeps it short, asks a few questions about the military situation, about the exchange of prisoners of war. Not a word is said about MH17.
Still, the conversation is important, said National Investigation Chief Andy Kraag. For years, the Russian government has denied responsibility for the war in eastern Ukraine. However, the tapped conversation proves that Putin was “personally” involved in the conflict, according to Kraag.
This finding is also relevant in criminal law. During the last press conference of the JIT in The Hague for the time being, it turned out that the investigation team had for years regarded Putin as one of the suspects in the downing of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 on July 17, 2014.
That has not produced conclusive evidence against the Russian president, said research leader Digna van Boetzelaer. The JIT does have “strong indications” that Putin personally ordered to provide the separatists in the Donbas with the Boek anti-aircraft system with which MH17 was shot down.
Only number one can take the plunge, no general, no defense minister
Assistant to the leader of Russia-annexed Crimea
That decision was made in early June, when Putin had traveled to Normandy, France, for an international commemoration of D-Day, the Allied invasion on June 6, 1944. The day after Putin posed next to US President Barack Obama and the British Queen Elizabeth called the assistant to Sergei Aksyonov, the leader of Crimea annexed by Russia, with an unknown person. Aksyonov played a major role in directing the separatists. Through him, the insurgents have asked for heavier anti-aircraft defenses – such as the Book.
Ukrainian security service
While the Ukrainian security service listens in, Aksyonov’s assistant says that the decision has been postponed for a week, because only “number one” can make the decision. “No general, no defense minister. Number one, the one who is personally accountable to the people,” the assistant clarifies. “He makes the decision. And because there is now that top in France…”
“I understand,” says his anonymous interlocutor.
“Do you now understand what level we are talking about?”
The intercepted conversation is not the only indication of Putin’s direct involvement in the death of all 298 occupants of MH17 – including 196 Dutch people. For example, another wiretapped conversation shows that Crimean leader Aksyonov was in Sochi on the Black Sea on June 3, 2014 – just like the Russian president. The OM also has information that a meeting was held in the second half of June at the presidential administration in Moscow led by Putin’s Ukraine adviser Vladislav Surkov, at which a written request was drawn up to Putin to provide the separatists with heavier air defenses. That request was granted: on 23 June, units of the 53rd Missile Brigade departed with Boek systems from Kursk in Russia for the Ukrainian border.
It’s fascinating evidence, but it’s not enough to prosecute Putin, Van Boetzelaer said. Moreover, as head of state, the Russian president enjoys immunity. A possible prosecution would only be discussed after Putin has stepped down – something he does not seem particularly inclined to do.
The investigation into other suspects – from the Russian crew of the Boek to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu – has also yielded insufficient results for further prosecution. For example, the largest criminal investigation in Dutch history has stalled on the conviction of three suspects. Last November, former Russian intelligence officers Igor Girkin, Sergey Dubinsky and Ukrainians Leonid Chartsjenko were sentenced to life imprisonment by the court in The Hague for their part in the plane crash. That sentence has now become irrevocable, but it cannot be enforced: the three convicts are in Russian-controlled territory and Moscow does not extradite citizens.
Provisional end of MH17 investigation
The investigation into MH17 has therefore come to a provisional end. During the press conference in The Hague, it became clear once again how far the international investigation team had gone in its investigation. For example, Kraag quoted from conversations that undercover agents had with Russian soldiers from the 53rd Brigade – probably employees of the Ukrainian services. It wasn’t enough for new business. “The bar for determining individual criminal liability is high,” said Van Boetzelaer. The investigation into MH17 is shelved. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be a sequel in the future. Witnesses can still report and the MH17 website remains up and running. To be on the safe side, the JIT agreement between the Netherlands, Ukraine, Malaysia, Australia and Belgium is in force. “Solving these kinds of crimes is a matter of patience,” said Van Boetzelaer.
For now, Russia continues to sabotage the investigation. But if President Putin’s regime falls, the investigation into MH17 can just be dusted off. Van Boetzelaer referred to the Lockerbie case (the 1988 bombing of an American plane over Scotland). Last December it was announced that the US had arrested the suspected (Libyan) bomb maker. Van Boetzelaer could also have referred to the Bosnian Serbs Radovan Karadžić (arrested in 2008) and Ratko Mladić (arrested in 2011). Years later, both were convicted of the murder of approximately 8,000 Bosnian men and boys in Srebrenica in 1995. So Vladimir Putin also has reason to fear. “The JIT remains committed to the MH17 investigation,” said Van Boetzelaer.
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