Russian President Vladimir Putin likely signed off on supplying Moscow-backed separatists with the missile system that downed a Malaysia Airlines passenger plane over Ukraine in 2014, a European investigative team said Wednesday, potentially implicating the Russian leader in a crash that killed 298 people.
But a joint investigation team at The Hague said it could not prove conclusively that Putin was behind the Buk missile strike on a doomed Boeing 777, and did not announce new prosecutions in a case that already produced convictions of three leaders of a separatist military force in Ukraine.
“The bar for establishing individual criminal liability is high,” Digna van Boetzelaer, a Dutch prosecutor who led the investigation, said in a statement. “At the moment we do not meet that bar.”
Even if the inquiry had produced a stronger case against Putin, he would carry immunity from prosecution in the Netherlands as the president of Russia, investigators said in a 66-page report.
Moscow has long denied any involvement in the attack on the commercial airliner, and has said the European probe is biased. Putin’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story.
Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 departed Amsterdam’s airport en route to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, on the afternoon of July 17, 2014. Above eastern Ukraine, a surface-to-air anti-aircraft missile struck the jet at cruising altitude, downing the airliner near the border with Russia.
Those aboard the plane included 193 Dutch citizens, 43 Malaysians, 27 Australians, 12 Indonesians and 10 Britons. Everyone onboard died.
The joint investigation team, which includes members from the Netherlands, Australia, Malaysia, Belgium and Ukraine, said it had shared the results of its inquiry with the families of the victims.
In their report, investigators wrote that they had found evidence suggesting that Putin’s office had made the decision to supply the Buk system to the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, the separatist group in Ukraine said to have carried out the attack.
“Although the investigation produced strong indications, the high bar of complete and conclusive evidence is not reached,” said the report. “Furthermore, whether or not he is entitled to claim combatant immunity, the president of the Russian Federation, as head of state, is in any event immune under international law from prosecution.”
The joint investigation team’s nearly nine-year probe into the crash will now be suspended, though not formally closed, according to the report, which relied on intercepted phone calls that shed light on the Kremlin’s military moves in Ukraine.
In November, three men linked to the Russian security services — Igor Girkin and Sergey Dubinskiy, both Russian; and Leonid Kharchenko, a Ukrainian — were convicted of murder by a Dutch court in connection with the downed plane. But the defendants were not in Dutch custody.
A fourth defendant was acquitted.
The joint investigation team’s inquiry led to the prosecution of the three men by the Netherlands Public Prosecution Service.
The report released Wednesday underlined that the future disclosure of new information may cause the team to pursue new leads.
“The (joint investigation team) has investigated everything it can without the cooperation of the Russian authorities and without jeopardizing people’s safety,” Andy Kraag, head of the Netherlands’ National Criminal Investigations Division, said in a statement. “Any further evidence must be sought in the Russian Federation.”
“Our door remains open for them,” Kraag added.
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