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European rights court clears way for MH17 case targeting Russian disinformation

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his address to the nation at the Kremlin in Moscow on Feb. 21, 2022. (ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

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

Europe’s top human rights court has agreed to hear a Dutch case against Russian disinformation following the shooting down eight years ago of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine, an incident that killed 298 people from around a dozen countries.

The decision by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on January 25 clears the way procedurally for the case to go forward, suggesting Moscow had “effective control” over the Kremlin-backed separatists who shot the passenger jet down with a Russian-made surface-to-air missile.

A key excerpt of the decision says the court “further found that the respondent State” — Russia — “had a significant influence on the separatists’ military strategy.”

It said Russia “had provided weapons and other military equipment to separatists on a significant scale from the earliest days…and over the following months and years” of two Russia-backed separatists group in eastern Ukraine, that it “had carried out artillery attacks upon requests from the separatists; and that it had provided political and economic support to the separatists.”

A Dutch court in November convicted two Russians and one pro-Moscow Ukrainian separatist of murder in absentia for their roles in the downing of the plane and sentenced them to life in prison.

The three men convicted were former Russian intelligence agents Igor Girkin and Sergei Dubinskiy, and Leonid Kharchenko, a Ukrainian separatist leader. All are believed to be in Russia.

The court acquitted the fourth suspect, Russian Oleg Pulatov, the only suspect represented by defense lawyers at the trial, for lack of evidence.

The downing of flight MH17 in July 2014 killed all 283 passengers and 15 crew members on board the flight, which had taken off from Schiphol Airport outside Amsterdam bound for Kuala Lumpur. The victims came from more than a dozen countries, although more than two-thirds of them were Dutch citizens.

Russia has maintained that it had no role in the tragedy and put forward alternative theories, which never held up under scrutiny.

An ECHR case could take years to be heard, but a verdict against Russia in the case could order Moscow to pay compensation to the families of hundreds of victims.

Russia quit the European Convention on Human Rights in September amid fierce international backlash to its unprovoked full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, but the ECHR can hear cases related to Russia on events and actions that occurred prior to its exit.