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'In The Convoy With The Buk': An Open-Source Investigator Follows The MH17 Trial


A Buk missile launcher from Russia’s 53rd Antiaircraft Missile Brigade from an online photo album of a Russian mechanic.

On June 7, the trial in absentia of four suspects -- three Russians and one Ukrainian -- in connection with the downing of a passenger jet over eastern Ukraine in 2014 entered the phase during which judges heard the evidence accumulated by prosecutors.

The four suspects -- Russians Sergei Dubinsky, Oleg Pulatov, and Igor Girkin, as well as Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko -- are being tried in absentia by a court in The Hague for involvement in the tragedy. Only one of the suspects, Pulatov, is represented by lawyers at the trial.

MH17 was shot down on July 17, 2014, on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur by a Russian-made Buk surface-to-air missile fired from territory controlled by Moscow-backed separatists in the east of Ukraine, killing all 298 passengers and crew.

The trial formally began in March 2020 but had until recently been dealing with motions, mostly covering the admissibility of evidence in the crash. Prosecutors completed their presentation of evidence on June 10 and will present their summation at the next hearings on June 17 and 18.

Although the hearings have been closed to the public because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kirill Mikhailov, an investigator with the Moscow-based Conflict Intelligence Team, which has worked with the open-source research group Bellingcat to investigate the MH17 tragedy, has been monitoring the court’s live stream and reacting to events on Twitter throughout the hearings.

Mikhailov spoke with RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Mark Krutov about the trial and the evidence that has been presented so far.

RFE/RL: The trial opened officially in March 2020. Why did the preliminary hearings take so long?

Kirill Mikhailov: The court heard many motions during the preliminary hearings. First, there were numerous motions put forward by Oleg Pulatov’s defense, which is being handled by a Dutch law firm. They tried to get an order for additional investigation for every piece of evidence that seemed to them to be in the least bit dubious. They spent quite a lot of time traveling to Russia for consultations with their client. And the coronavirus pandemic caused delays. The defense asserted that because of the pandemic, they couldn’t get to Russia, even though there were flights at the time -- the summer of 2020. All those motions took time. In addition, the defense insisted on including experts from [the Russian producer of the Buk air-defense system] Almaz-Antei and that they be questioned jointly with the Belgian and Dutch experts who filed reports for the investigators and the civil-aviation investigation. In the end, the preliminary phase lasted about a year. But now, finally, the actual case is being heard. In this case, there are 65,000 pages of material and hundreds of hours of audio and visual material. So, the court has decided to order an abbreviated presentation of the information in the case materials with the qualification that it is not the conclusions of the court. Despite the condensation, the information presented gives a quite complete picture.

The court spent a lot of time analyzing the damage to the Boeing, the fragments of the rocket from the Buk 9M38M1 launcher that were found among the wreckage and inside parts of the plane. The latter were particularly important because they couldn’t have been planted there after the fact. Whole sections of the rocket, for instance, were stuck in the frame of the glass around the cockpit. All this was laid out in more detail than in the charges filed last year.

The court also spent time studying models that were constructed by Dutch and Russian experts and on how they came to their conclusions about the location from which the rocket was launched, and on the discrepancies between them. Because the defense was able to secure the inclusion of the analysis by Almaz-Antei, there is no longer unanimity among the expert opinions in the case materials. There is the opinion of the Belgian and Dutch experts, who concluded that the rocket was launched from territory controlled by the [Russia-backed separatists who call the territory they control the Donetsk People’s Republic, or DNR], and there is the Almaz-Antei opinion that the rocket was launched from the south, from territory controlled by Ukraine.

RFE/RL: But wasn’t it concluded that the territory from which Almaz-Antei says the rocket was launched also was not under Ukraine’s control?

Mikhailov: Yes, but it raises another question. The territory was controlled by the DNR but there were no forces there and there were no witnesses there. That is why Novaya gazeta journalist Pavel Kanygin was declared persona non grata in the DNR -- he went there and didn’t find any evidence of a rocket launch from that area.

RFE/RL: In the case materials, as has become clear, there is a huge amount of testimony from witnesses. Who are these people and how did the investigation manage to get their testimony?

Mikhailov: They are separatists, including some who work in the “government” of the DNR, local residents, and experts. You will recall that investigators issued many calls for witnesses, including some requests to answer concrete questions such as “Did you see a Buk in this area?” or “Do you know anything about a rocket launch from such-and-such a location?” And these questions were not only about the main version of events, but also about the alternative suggestions. Many of the witnesses came forward on their own, including by contacting the Bellingcat investigative group -- for instance, the person who shot the video of the Buk in Makiyivka.

None of the witnesses have been publicly named, but that is because they or their relatives continue to live in occupied parts of Ukraine and are in danger. We must also keep in mind that their names are known to the investigators and the court. The extent to which they can be believed has been thoroughly investigated, even when their testimony completely supports the main version of events put forward by the investigation. “Were you there?” “Was your phone registered on the local cellphone tower in that region?” After these checks, many witnesses were placed in doubt or even removed from the findings.

But there are plenty that remain. In particular, there are three people who saw the Buk in Donetsk and three people who saw the Buk in Makiyivka and in Snizhne. There are some witnesses who were in the convoy with the Buk. This was enough to confirm the other information -- the photographs, the telephone records, the satellite images.

RFE/RL: Did you see any new material during these hearings?

Mikhailov: Yes. There was a man by the name of Chernykh, who was known in 2014 as “Bibliotekar” and “Buryatnik.” According to newly released intercepts, he traveled on the night of July 17 to the Russian border. His telephone pinged the cell tower at Sukhodilsk, near where the Buk crossed the border. He then telephoned a fighter from the [separatist force in the Luhansk region, where Sukhodilsk is located], the person responsible for supplying equipment, and someone who is believed to have been a Russian border guard. He then travelled from Sukhodilsk through Debaltsevo and Yenakiyeve in the Donetsk region. All this information has been thoroughly checked…. For instance, I finally understood how it turned out that…the Buk was traveling toward Snizhne with the Vostok tank battalion, although there was evidence that they left the area separately. It turned out from the new intercepts that the tanks left without the Buk but later caught up with it on the road. All the information laid out before the court forms a complete picture down to the smallest details.

RFE/RL: What are the next steps for the trial and when might we expect a verdict?

Mikhailov: After the presentation of the case materials, we will hear the summations of the prosecution and the defense, during which they might focus attention on particular aspects of the case materials. Then there will be the rebuttal presentations of the prosecution and the defense. In September, they expect to hear from the relatives of victims, who will speak about how they have experienced the loss of their loved ones. The last hearing for this year is planned in November. If there are no new complicating developments that could extend matters, I hope that there will be a verdict by the end of the year.

Translated from Russian by RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson
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