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Dutch probe implicates Putin in 2014 downing of Malaysian passenger jet

Andy Kraag, head of the national crime investigations division in the Netherlands, presents evidence at The Hague on Wednesday implicating Russian President Vladimir Putin in the 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine. (Peter Dejong/AP)
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Dutch prosecutors said Wednesday that it was likely that Russian President Vladimir Putin signed off on a decision to supply long-range antiaircraft missiles systems to pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine before they shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July 2014, killing all 298 passengers and crew members.

However, while the prosecutors said they had documented “strong indications” of Putin’s direct role in the decision to send missiles, they said their evidence was “not concrete enough” for a new prosecution.

In November, two Russian former state security officers and a Ukrainian separatist leader were convicted in a Dutch court of murder in the case, though they were never arrested or extradited. Dutch authorities have been in charge of the investigation because the flight originated in Amsterdam.

The Joint Investigation Team (JIT) led by the Dutch had previously determined that a Russian-supplied Buk surface-to-air missile hit the Boeing 777 flying to Kuala Lumpur on July 17, 2014, killing all passengers and crew members.

At a news conference in The Hague on Wednesday, the JIT said its conclusions about Putin’s role were based on recorded telephone conversations in which Russian officials said that the decision to provide military support to the separatists could be made only by the Russian president.

“There is concrete information that the separatists’ request was presented to the president, and that this request was granted,” the investigators said, adding: “It is not known whether the request explicitly mentions a Buk system.”

The team noted that despite the strong indications, “the high bar of complete and conclusive evidence is not reached.” The prosecutors said they had exhausted their leads, and that there would be no further criminal proceedings.

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In its November verdict, a Dutch court convicted the three suspects of murder, though none of them are in custody. A fourth suspect was acquitted. The verdict determined that Moscow bore responsibility for the downing of the plane.

The Kremlin has long denied any involvement in the destruction of the jetliner and has refused to extradite the defendants or cooperate with investigators. It has also maintained, falsely, that Russia was not a party to the conflict that unfolded in Donbas in 2014.

The court, however, determined that Moscow financed and armed the separatist forces in Donetsk and generally controlled the breakaway area of Luhansk and its authorities.

Dutch investigators said they had analyzed all available telecommunications, radar and satellite data to establish what happened to the airplane and to ascertain the role of the three convicted men in delivering the missile system to the launch location in Pervomaiskyi.

“The purpose of this investigation was to find out the truth, and I think we have come further than we ever imagined in 2014,” said Deputy Chief Public Prosecutor Digna van Boetzelaer. “The findings we have uncovered about the Russian involvement up to the highest level can play an important role in proceedings where the liability of this state is at issue.”

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But given limited evidence, the investigation was not able to identify the specific soldiers responsible for firing the missile that downed the plane, which came from Russia’s 53rd Brigade in Kursk. Investigators also have not determined what information the separatists had about the plane when they fired.

“The JIT has investigated everything it can without the cooperation of the Russian authorities and without jeopardizing people’s safety,” Andy Kraag, head of the National Criminal Investigation Department in the Netherlands, said, according to a transcript. “Any further evidence must be sought in the Russian Federation. And for this the JIT is dependent on the cooperation of the Russian authorities or Russian [insider] witnesses. Our door remains open for them.”