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US calls on Russia to hand over MH17 evidence, let Marine vet Paul Whelan go

The wreckage of flight MH17 is seen after the presentation of the investigation report on the cause of its crash on Oct. 13, 2015 in Gilze-Rijen, Netherlands. A mysterious man wanted in connection with the deadly downing of Malaysia Air Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014 appears to be a high-level Russian military intelligence officer, an investigation by a team of reporting outlets has found. (Sylvia Lederer/Xinhua/Zuma Press/TNS)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

With their trial set to start in a few days, the United States has called on Russia to hand over suspects in the 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, a disaster that cost the lives of all 298 people on board.

“It is long past time for Russia to comply, to reveal what it knows and to turn over those individuals who have been indicated in these cases,” U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Christopher Robinson said in an interview with RFE/RL during a visit to Prague on March 2.

Russian citizens Igor Girkin, Oleg Pulatov, and Sergei Dubinsky, and Ukrainian national Leonid Kharchenko have been charged by Dutch prosecutors with shooting down the Boeing 777 with a Russian-made BUK missile as it flew over territory held by Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

The men are unlikely to be present at their first hearing scheduled for March 9 at a high-security courthouse near Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. The men are all believed to be hiding in Russia, which does not extradite its citizens, or in separatist-controlled territory in Ukraine.

A fifth suspect, Volodymyr Tsemakh, was among 35 prisoners sent to Moscow from Kyiv in the September 7 swap of 70 people captured during the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

A Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team (JIT) has concluded that Russia’s 53rd Antiaircraft Missile Brigade had transported the Buk in 2014 to and from Ukraine.

Robinson said the array of public information available indicates that the MH17 downing happened in an area under Russian control. Russia denies involvement in the incident.

“This is another case where Russia engages in aggression, Russia fails to reveal the truth, it puts out disinformation and lies and tries to distort the truth,” Robinson said. “I think Russia has behaved reprehensibly in this issue.”

The JIT had pleaded with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to keep Tsemakh in Ukrainian custody. Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly insisted that Tsemakh be included in the exchange, or the swap would be called off.

MH17 took off from Amsterdam for Kuala Lumpur on July 17, 2014. About two-thirds of the passengers were Dutch nationals.

Election Interference, Whelan Incarceration

Robinson also said that the United States has repeatedly warned Russia not to interfere in U.S. elections and called on the Kremlin to release Paul Whelan, a former Marine held in a Moscow prison on espionage charges.

U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller concluded in March 2019 following a two-year investigation that Russia carried out a broad campaign to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, including through hacking into the Democratic National Committee computer system.

U.S. intelligence officials last month told the Trump administration and Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders that Russia is interfering in the elections to support them, The New York Times and Washington Post reported. However, the intelligence officials did not say how Russia was interfering and did not give any evidence.

Russia has also been accused of interfering in other nations’ elections. The Kremlin has denied the accusations.

“There can be no improvement in the U.S.-Russia bilateral relationship until Russia ceases its broad campaign to support malign activities around the world, not just against the United States but against our allies and partners,” Robinson said.

Russia arrested Whelan in Moscow in December 2018 for possessing a flash drive that contained state secrets, according to local media.

Whelan said he was given the drive by a Russian acquaintance in an apparent setup. A Moscow City Court recently extended his detention until March 29, 2020.

“They have not produced evidence [of his guilt],” the deputy secretary said. “It is long past time to let Paul Whelan go.”