BRUSSELS—International prosecutors charged four suspects—including three Russians—with murder in a case that investigators said would show how a Russian missile system was used to shoot down a passenger jet over Ukraine in 2014, killing all 298 on board and sparking international outrage.
The downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on July 17, 2014—which came as Russia covertly poured men and military vehicles and equipment into eastern Ukraine in support of antigovernment rebels—added momentum to sanctions against Russia for its actions in Ukraine.
The Dutch-led investigation announced the charges on Wednesday for prosecution in the Netherlands. Most of the victims were Dutch.
The suspects, including three with ties to Russian military and security services, are unlikely to stand trial. All four are in Russia or the part of eastern Ukraine not controlled by Kiev, investigators said.
The suspects include Igor Girkin, a former colonel in the Russian domestic security agency, the FSB, who at the time was defense minister for the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, or DNR, in eastern Ukraine.
Mr. Girkin has denied that DNR forces shot down the plane. A DNR spokesman repeated the denial Wednesday to Russian news agencies.
Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down by a missile launch that originated in Russia, according to a new report from late September 2016. WSJ’s Robert Wall reports on Lunch Break with Tanya Rivero. Photo: Reuters (Originally published Sept. 28, 2016)
Russia fomented the Ukraine conflict and carved out two so-called republics in eastern Ukraine as part of an effort to retain influence in its former vassal after a revolution there ousted a pro-Russian president. Sporadic fighting still adds to a death toll of over 10,000, although the front lines have changed little since early 2015.
Ukrainian and Western officials quickly said Russia and the rebels it supported were behind the downing of Flight MH17. Moscow has blamed Ukraine and provided a variety of unsubstantiated theories about what happened. On Wednesday, the Russian Foreign Ministry said accusations of Russian involvement were unfounded.
The Joint Investigative Team, which includes police and prosecutors from the Netherlands, Ukraine, Malaysia, Australia and Belgium, has focused on building a criminal case.
Investigators have previously said that the missile system that shot down the aircraft came from Russia’s 53rd Antiaircraft Missile Brigade. On Wednesday, they said the four suspects didn’t fire the missile but facilitated its delivery from Russia into eastern Ukraine. The suspects have been charged with bringing down the plane and murdering 298 people.
“From the so-called defense minister to the commander on the ground, together they formed a chain linking the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic with the Russian Federation,” said a voice-over at a press conference in the Netherlands by investigators. “It was through this chain the suspects were able to get heavy military equipment from Russia to the battlefield in Eastern Ukraine.”
Investigators hope to gather enough evidence to charge other suspects, including the crew handling the missile system and those that ordered them into Ukraine. Investigators appealed for witnesses to help them identify what was they said was likely a four-man crew from the Russian brigade.
The plane was shot down as Ukrainian aviation was giving government forces an advantage in firing on separatist positions and spotting targets for artillery and missiles. Leadership of the Donetsk People’s Republic had publicly and privately begged for more military aid from Moscow.
Investigators on Wednesday played what they said was an intercepted telephone call a week before the downing of MH 17 between a Russian rebel commander and a senior Kremlin official suggesting decisive military aid was coming.
Russian military intervention halted the Ukrainian army’s advance in August 2014.
Investigators said two of the suspects, Sergey Dubinsky and Oleg Pulatov, were former members of Russian military intelligence who were leading rebel military intelligence in the summer of 2014. Ukrainian citizen Leonid Kharchenko, who was also charged, was a field commander of the rebel forces, investigators said. The three men couldn’t be reached for comment.
The Dutch lead prosecutor, Fred Westerbeke, called on the men to appear at the start of the trial in the Netherlands on March 9, 2020, although he acknowledged that was unlikely.
The Kremlin has insisted it is innocent and complained that it hasn’t been made part of the Dutch-led investigation.
Russia vetoed an attempt to set up a United Nations tribunal and Dutch prosecutors said they are waiting for a Russian response to questions, including where the Russian missile system suspected of shooting down the plane was on July 17, 2014.
—Thomas Grove in Moscow contributed to this article.
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