An international team of investigators is piecing together a criminal case in the July 2014 shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine. They said on Nov. 14 that evidence suggests links between Russia and separatists in the region were closer than previously believed.
MH17 was shot out of the sky on July 17, 2014, over territory held by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine as it flew from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. All 298 passengers and crew on board were killed.
The Joint Investigation Team (JIT), made up of detectives and prosecutors from the Netherlands, Malaysia, Australia, Belgium, and Ukraine, issued a fresh appeal for witnesses and revealed details of secure communications between Russian officials and rebels in the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) rebel group in eastern Ukraine.
“The indications of close ties between leaders of the DPR (Donetsk People’s Republic) and Russian government officials raises questions about their possible involvement in the deployment of the (missile), which brought down flight MH17 on 17 July 2014,” the JIT said.
The Dutch-led team said the phone call intercepts showed that two leaders of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) had been in contact with Vladislav Surkov, a senior Putin aide and former deputy prime minister, and Sergey Aksyonov, a Russian-appointed leader in Russian-annexed Crimea.
According to the MH17 witness appeal issued by JIT, the two leaders of the DPR were Igor Girkin, the defense minister in the DPR, and his deputy Sergei Dubinsky. They both showed up in the phone call intercepts, according to prosecutors. In June, four people, three of them Russian, were charged with 298 murders over the 2014 shooting down of Flight MH17.
Investigators said that witness accounts indicate that DPR leaders “were directed from within Russia” despite them claiming that “they were volunteers not directed by anyone,” according to the BBC.
DPR leader Alexander Borodai said on July 10, 2019, “I would like to tell you that both Igor and I have been volunteers for a very long time. The volunteer movement is well developed in Russia,” according to Politie (The national police force in the Netherlands).
In the MH17 witness appeal released by the JIT, Surkov told Borodai on July 3, 2014, “that there will be reinforcements from Russia.”
Borodai said to Surkov in a conversation on July 11, 2014, “that he urgently needs military support from Moscow,” according to the same source.
These conversations occurred within the two weeks before MH17 was shot down.
“There was almost daily telephone contact between the leadership of the DPR and their contacts in the Russian Federation,” the JIT said. “They spoke with leaders in Moscow, near the border with Ukraine and in Crimea. Communication mostly took place via secure telephones provided by the Russian security service.”
There were calls between rebel forces and authorities in Moscow “on a daily basis to discuss administrative, financial, and military matters in the DPR.”
The JIT released a series of phone numbers, asking witnesses to help identify the callers.
Russia has repeatedly denied involvement in the downing and accused the investigation team of bias.
At a weekly briefing in Moscow on Thursday, Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova questioned the evidence.
“What are they (the conclusions) based on? Publication of materials, some of which immediately turn out to be fake, and some of which don’t check out? We’ve been through this already,” she said.
The suspects are due to go on trial in a secure courtroom near Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport in March, though they are not in custody and will likely be tried in their absence.
Investigators said their probe revealed that “Russian influence on the DPR went beyond military support.”
The Joint Investigation Team said last year it was convinced that the Buk missile system used to shoot down flight MH17 came from the Russian army’s 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade, based in the Russian city of Kursk.
The team said Thursday it is looking for witnesses “who can share information about those who controlled the DPR leadership in Donetsk and commanded the deployment of the Buk” missile system.
“The indications for close ties between leaders of the DPR and Russian government officials raise questions about their possible involvement in the deployment” of the missile, the investigators said.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report