When the passenger plane was shot down over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014, 298 people were killed, including 196 Dutch people. The incident sparked outrage around the world. Footage showed sunflower fields strewn with bodies and wreckage – some of the victims, including children, were still buckled in their seats.

The court now found it proven that the plane was shot down by a BUK surface-to-air missile. It was fired from a field in an area in eastern Ukraine controlled by the self-proclaimed pro-Russian Donetsk People’s Republic.

“There is a wealth of evidence to support this conclusion,” said presiding judge Hendrik Steenhuis. The evidence included intercepted telephone calls and cell phone data, video and photo recordings and forensic material. For example, a fragment of the rocket was found in the body of a crew member in the cockpit.

The two Russians Igor Girkin and Sergei Dubinski and the Ukrainian Leonid Chartschenko were instrumental in bringing the rocket to eastern Ukraine – even if they did not shoot down the plane themselves. The Russian Oleg Pulatow, who was also accused, was acquitted. There was insufficient evidence for his involvement, the judges said.

The court ruled out “alternative scenarios” put forward by the defense, according to which a Ukrainian jet could also be behind the shooting down. The judges also noted that Donetsk was “under the control of the Russian Federation” at the time of the shooting down.

However, Russia denies “to this day” that it controlled the region at the time, the judges said. This means that the accused would not be entitled to immunity as combatants in an international conflict. Moscow denies any involvement in the tragedy.

The Ukrainian army has been fighting pro-Russian militias in eastern Ukraine since 2014. Today, the area where the plane crashed is one of the most important battlefields of the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine, which has been going on since February.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyj welcomed the verdict and spoke of an “important court decision”. “Punishment for all Russian atrocities – both yesterday’s and today’s – will be inevitable,” he said.

Girkin was a former Russian intelligence officer and later defense minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. According to the public prosecutor’s office, the 51-year-old was in contact with Moscow to obtain the missile system.

Dubinski is also said to have had connections to the Russian secret service. The 60-year-old served as the head of the separatists’ military intelligence and gave instructions on the missile. The 50-year-old Kharchenko is said to have led a combat unit in the region.

The four men are not in the Netherlands and have refused to appear in court. Only Pulatov had lawyers represent him in court.

The procedure has been taking place since March 2020 under high security precautions near Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, from where the Malaysia Airlines plane took off for Kuala Lumpur at the time. Prosecutors had asked for life imprisonment for all four accused. Dozens of relatives’ families from all over the world traveled to hear the verdict.