A day after the MH17 plane crash inquiry team announced murder charges against four men, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has condemned the decision as “ridiculous”.
The three Russians and a Ukrainian are accused of bringing a missile into eastern Ukraine which shot the Malaysian Airlines plane down.
All 298 people on board were killed.
“From the very beginning it became a political issue on how to accuse Russia of wrongdoing,” Mr Mahathir said.
Russia has also condemned the accusations as “groundless”. However, Malaysia is itself part of the Dutch-led joint investigation team (JIT), which has been working on the criminal inquiry for years.
The three Russians charged were all closely connected to Russian intelligence services, prosecutors said, and all four were involved in the conflict with the Ukrainian army in eastern Ukraine at the time the plane was shot down on 17 July 2014.
A trial will open in the Netherlands on 9 March 2020, even if the suspects are not present.
Who are the four?
- Igor Girkin (also known as Strelkov) is, prosecutors say, a former colonel in Russia’s FSB intelligence service who had the role of minister of defence title in the rebel-held eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk. He has denied involvement
- Sergei Dubinsky (known as Khmury), was employed by Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency and a deputy of Mr Girkin who was in regular contact with Russia, prosecutors say
- Oleg Pulatov, known as Giurza, was according to the JIT a former soldier of GRU special forces and deputy head of the intelligence service in Donetsk
- Ukrainian national Leonid Kharchenko led a combat unit as a commander in eastern Ukraine, according to prosecutors
How deep was Russian involvement?
Russia has insisted that there is no concrete evidence to back up allegations that the missile came from its territory or that Russian officials have been involved in the separatist campaign against Ukrainian forces.
But investigators have already produced evidence that they say proves the Buk anti-aircraft missile that brought down MH17 was transported to eastern Ukraine from the 53rd Russian military brigade based in Kursk.
During Wednesday’s JIT news conference, investigators also produced wiretapped audio of a phone-call six days before the crash. The call features Vladislav Surkov, a top aide to President Vladimir Putin, discussing Russian military assistance with the ex-head of the rebel Donetsk republic, Alexander Borodai.
A separate, earlier wiretap, investigators say, featured Igor Girkin appealing for anti-aircraft defence material from Sergei Aksenov, Russia’s leader in recently annexed Crimea.
Investigators say they want to know who was involved in the decision-making progress in Russia, particularly who decided a Buk missile launcher would be sent to Ukraine and who would crew it.
A Russian military expert told Tass news agency that when hostilities “were in full swing”, Vladislav Surkov never spoke by phone with separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine for security reasons.
What did Mahathir say?
The 90-year-old Malaysian leader went on to demand proof of Russian guilt, insisting “so far, there is no proof, only hearsay”. When asked if his reaction had anything to do with sales of Malaysian palm oil, he said no.
Palm oil is key to Malaysia’s economy, for jobs and exports.
But earlier this year the European Commission recommended the phasing out of palm oil for use in biofuels for transport by 2030, deciding that palm oil production caused excessive deforestation.
Malaysia has since announced it is keen to trade its palm oil in return for military equipment such as fighter jets to replace its ageing Russian-made fleet.
Malaysian reports have recently quoted Russian officials as offering to increase palm oil purchases in return for a military deal.
MH17 crash: Malaysia PM Mahathir denounces murder charges