Dutch prosecutors questioned Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 “person of interest” Volodymyr Tsemakh before he left for Moscow as part of a Russian-Ukrainian prisoner exchange on September 7, Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok told his country’s parliament in a statement the same day.
"Up until" the prisoner exchange during which Kyiv and Moscow each swapped 35 prisoners, Dutch prosecutors "had done everything possible through judicial channels to keep Tsemakh available for the [MH17 Joint Investigative Team] investigation," Blok told the Dutch parliament.
In response, Kyiv had promised to postpone the exchange for some time in order to give Dutch prosecutors an opportunity to question Tsemakh, and "this has happened," Blok said.
He didn't say for how long or what information, if any, was divulged during the interrogation of Tsemakh, who reportedly oversaw an air-defense unit among Russia-backed separatists in a town near where MH17 was shot down with what Dutch-led investigators have concluded was a Russian-made Buk missile system in July 2014.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy told reporters at Kyiv’s Boryspil Airport the same news after greeting the 35 freed Ukrainian prisoners, according to the Interfax news agency.
Zelenskiy said he did everything possible to ensure Tsemakh would be questioned by the Dutch and that the process "was complicated…I was scared that the [prisoner] exchange would fall apart because of that."
All 298 people on board MH17 were killed flying over territory held by Russia-backed separatists en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lampur.
Three Russians and a Ukrainian were indicted over the downing of MH17, and court proceedings in the Netherlands are scheduled for March. But the four suspects are most likely to be tried in absentia.
Russia called the charges against its citizens "absolutely unfounded" and said the investigators had based their findings on "dubious sources of information," accusing them of rejecting evidence that the Kremlin had provided. Moscow has also aired its own theories on the shoot-down but never provided solid evidence.
Tsemakh, a Ukrainian citizen, is not one of the four indicted.
In an exclusive interview with Interfax on September 7, Ukraine's security service (SBU) chief Ivan Bakanov said the exclusion of Tsemakh on the prisoner exchange list would have led to "the cessation of negotiations with Russia."
The degree to which Moscow was allegedly adamant on getting Tsemakh was "yet another confirmation of Russia's involvement in the shoot-down of MH17," Bakanov said.
The Russian Embassy in the Netherlands said its diplomatic mission hadn’t received any extradition requests from Dutch authorities, according to a social media statement on September 7.
The SBU apprehended Tsemakh on June 27 in the Donetsk region in the city of Snizhne, which is held by Moscow-backed separatists and is 20 kilometers from the Russian border.
According to the Dutch-led investigation, the Buk missile was fired six kilometers south of Snizhne.
TV footage obtained by Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, showed Tsemakh claiming that he was in charge of an antiaircraft unit and that he helped hide the missile system in July 2014.
He also shows the interviewer where the civilian airliner fell.