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Daughter Of MH17 Suspect Traded By Ukraine Thanks Putin, Says 'We're Going Home'

Volodymyr Tsemakh is suspected of involvement in the downing of flight MH17. (file photo)
Volodymyr Tsemakh is suspected of involvement in the downing of flight MH17. (file photo)

KYIV -- More than two months after his capture by Kyiv and four days after he was flown to Moscow as part of a major Russian-Ukrainian prisoner exchange, the man who Dutch investigators say is a "suspect" in the shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 is apparently returning to his home deep inside territory controlled by Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine -- and beyond the reach of Dutch law enforcement.

"There is happiness in life, there is justice, there are good people! Now life is a little easier," Maria Levchenko-Tsemakh, daughter of Volodymyr Tsemakh, wrote on her page on the Russian social-media site VK, formerly VKontakte, on September 10. "Hurrah, my dears! We're going home!"

Tsemakh was sent along with 34 other prisoners to Moscow from Kyiv in the September 7 swap of 70 people -- 35 from each side -- that included many high-profile figures held for years.

The Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team (JIT) leading the probe into the 2014 downing of MH17 over eastern Ukraine had pleaded with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to keep Tsemakh in Ukrainian custody. But Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly insisted that Tsemakh either be included in the exchange, or the swap would be called off.

Zelenskiy delayed the exchange so that the Dutch JIT had a chance to interrogate Tsemakh, but said he had to include him in order to restart peace talks with Russia.

Levchenko-Tsemakh, who according to a separate profile on Russian social media site Odnaklasniki, or, is a resident of Khartsyzk, 50 kilometers west of Snizhne, was enthusiastic about her father's release on September 7. "I cannot thank the Russian government and 'our' President Vladimir Putin enough!" she wrote on VK on September 7. "I am forever in your debt!"

Anger And Frustration

Tsemakh's release was met with anger and frustration by relatives of the MH17 victims, with one calling it "unacceptable." Those relatives feared that Tsemakh's release would mean that he would be unable to testify at a trial of four men -- three Russian men and a Ukrainian man -- whom Dutch prosecutors have indicted for murder and will try in March next year.

Tsemakh, 58, is known to have commanded an air-defense unit of the Russia-backed forces fighting in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine at the time of the downing of MH17. While his exact role in the attack remains unclear, he boasted to a separatist news agency in a 2015 video report about how he helped hide the Russian Buk missile system that shot down the airliner, killing all 298 people on board.

In a VK post on September 9, Levchenko-Tsemakh shared a photo of a bus that showed its route being from Donetsk, the de facto capital of the Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, to Moscow.

In her September 10 post about bringing her father home, Levchenko-Tsemakh included a selfie with him taken at an unknown location.

"Going home" appears to mean somewhere near Snizhne, located within separatist-held territory in the Donetsk region and about 20 kilometers from the Russian border. There, he will likely be out of reach of Ukrainian and Dutch law enforcement.

"If it's true [that Tsemakh is going home], this is another act of obstruction from Russia," Piet Ploeg, chairman of the MH17 Disaster Foundation, an organization that helps relatives of those killed in the downing, told RFE/RL by phone from the Netherlands on September 11. "The Netherlands has asked Russia for the arrest and extradition of Tsemakh. Now that Tsemakh is back again or is going back to the separatist area, Russia cannot extradite him," added Ploeg, who lost a brother, sister-in-law, and nephew when MH17 was shot out of the sky.

Dutch authorities sent an official request to Moscow for Tsemakh's extradition after his arrival there. While Russia does not extradite its own citizens, it would have been possible, theoretically, to extradite Tsemakh, a Ukrainian citizen.

Tsemakh was captured from his home and transported to Kyiv in a secret mission carried out by Ukrainian special forces on June 27. One Ukrainian military intelligence operative was killed and another injured when two land mines were triggered during their escape.

In Kyiv, Ukrainian authorities charged Tsemakh with participating in the organization of a terrorist group, a reference to the separatist forces fighting in eastern Ukraine. The crime carries a sentence of up to 15 years imprisonment if convicted.

Tsemakh never went on trial. He was released by a Kyiv court on his own recognizance last week in preparation for the prisoner exchange.

Neither Zelenskiy's office nor the Ukrainian Security Service could be reached for comment on this story.

Ploeg said his only hope now was for "Ukraine to get Tsemakh back from separatist territory and keep him available for interrogation and possibly for trial."

"They have done this before," he said.

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