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Case against Russia over downing of MH17 can go ahead, court rules

The European Court of Human Rights says a case brought by the Netherlands and Ukraine against Russia over the downing of a Malaysia Airlines flight is “partially admissable”, and will make a formal ruling at a later date.

The court considered the actual shooting down of the plane, and accusations from Kyiv that Moscow was responsible for the various violations committed by the separatists of the so-called Donetsk and Lugansk republics since 2014, and for the abduction of three groups of children in eastern Ukraine between June and August 2014.

Among the reasons given by the ECHR for declaring the appeals admissable was the fact that the Strasbourg judged ruled “that the areas of eastern Ukraine in the hands of the separatists were, from 11 May 2014 and at least until 26 January 2022, under the jurisdiction of the Russian Federation”.

In its ruling on admissibility, the ECHR made also referred to the presence in eastern Ukraine of Russian military personnel since April 2014 and the large-scale deployment of Russian troops on August 2014 at the latest.

The judges then pointed out that Moscow “had a significant influence on the military strategy of the separatists, to whom had supplied weapons and other military equipment on a significant scale from the early days, and that finally at their had carried out artillery attacks at their request”.

The ECHR will now have to proceed to examine the merits of the appeals to decide whether Moscow should be condemned for the violations of which it is accused. 

What’s the background to this case?

Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine by a Russian-made surface-to-air missile, fired by Moscow-backed separatists.

All 298 people, most of whom were Dutch, died in the crash. 

Russia has denied responsibility for the disaster, though the Dutch government claims it played a key role. 

The case may result in Russia being obliged to pay damages to victims’ families, but Moscow is unlikely to accept this verdict and be forthcoming with support. 

Russia was among the 47 countries to sign up to the ECHR, which is designed to protect human rights and basic freedoms in Europe, but left in September last year due to tensions with the West over Ukraine.   

The ECHR cannot overrule national governments. 

The Boeing 777 was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur in July 2014 when it was shot down, amid fighting between pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian forces in the eastern Donbas region of Ukraine. 

In the days and weeks after the crash, the separatists and their Russian backers denied culpability while offering a string of shifting explanations.

Russia later vetoed a UN resolution to create a tribunal that would have assigned blame for the incident. But video evidence surfaced that purported to show rebels combing through the still-smoking wreckage, seemingly dismayed at finding a civilian aircraft.

Immediately after the crash, the Ukrainian government produced intercepted audio transmissions in which alleged pro-Russian separatists talked of having shot down a plane. 

For Malaysia Airlines it was the second disaster of 2014, following the disappearance of flight 370 in March. 

At the ECHR, the Netherlands argued that Moscow played a central role in the aviation disaster, trying to prove that Moscow had “effective control” over the area of Ukraine where the missiles were fired from.

Last year, a Dutch court found two Russians and a Ukrainian guilty of murder or their part in the downing of MH17, sentencing them to life in prison. 

They were tried in absentia. 

All are thought to be in Russia, which is highly unlikely to hand over the men, deeming the verdict a politically motivated attack.

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