MH17 tragedy – new investigation launched

MH17 front

The cockpit wreckage of MH17. Photo: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

Two years after the shooting down  of the Malaysian commercial airliner (flight MH17) over eastern Ukraine (Donbass), investigators seem no closer to identifying the culprits.  This may seem surprising given the quick recovery of the black boxes and most of the airplane. But, on second thoughts, perhaps not surprising given the regional and geopolitical politics.

But, time is taking its toll on the credibility of the current investigators. Until now the investigation has been handled by the Dutch Safety Board (which published its final technical report last October (see MH17: Final technical report) and the Dutch-led joint investigation team (JIT) which is responsible for a more detailed investigation enabling determination of criminal liability.

Now, the Malaysian government is launching their own independent investigation. In announcing this the Malaysian PM Najib Razak said this would be a joint investigation together with the Russian Federation and its research results would be revealed in October 2016 (see Malaysia to start independent investigation into MH17 tragedy).

Meanwhile, the work of the Dutch Investigating Commission (JIT) will continue and the Minister of Transport in Malaysia has asked that a Russian expert be included in that investigation team. This has upset the Ukrainian authorities  who have responded by asking that the US to prevent the joint Russia/Malaysia investigation. (Why the Ukrainians think the US has any power of arbitration or decision on this issue is beyond me).

Concern about attitudes of current investigators

Apparently the Malaysians are not happy with the current findings of Dutch investigators. The do not see any evidence implicating Russia in the tragedy and had found that  Russia was very supportive during the first days of the crash. They had requested Russia be involved in the official investigation but this was not allowed.

According to the Australian National Review:

“Furthermore, all independent findings of Russian investigators were avoided. After the meeting between the heads of the states, Transport Minister of Malaysia, Liow Tiong Lai sent a letter to the Commission of Inquiry of the Netherlands requesting that Russia be included in the investigations. The request set off an alarm as Malaysia’s claim cannot be refused. This has made international observers suspicious on why Ukraine is reluctant to include Russian experts in the probe team.”

I too am suspicious. Russia has experts who could contribute greatly to the investigation. They have made their own investigation of the crash which deserves proper consideration  because it was carried out by specialists from the manufacture of the likely weapon involved, Almaz-Antey. The final Report of the Dutch Safety Board brushed off these findings without proper consideration (see MH17: Final technical report). Yet the Russian research appeared to make a more evidence-based evaluation of the specific missile used and its likely launch location. This research is very relevant to the ongoing criminal investigation because of its relevance to the specific model of missile used and the launch location.

Russian investigators frustrated

This is frustrating the Russian investigators. In February, Oleg Storchevoy, the deputy head of Russia’s Federal Air Transport Agency, accused the Dutch Safety Board and JIT of “showing no interest” in working with Russia:

“I would like to stress that Russia disclosed all of its available satellite data in the days immediately following the crash,” he wrote, adding that the data it had submitted to the investigation showed “movement and increased activity by Ukrainian BUK surface-to-air missile systems observed within the conflict area in eastern Ukraine one day ahead of the tragedy.”

Includingof Ukrainian experts in the JIT, while at the same time excluding Russian experts, raises suspicions. The Ukrainian Army, together with the rebel authorities in the Donbass region, are the main suspects. In fact, analysis of the intelligence evidence presented to the Dutch parliament (see Flight MH17 in Ukraine – what do intelligence services know?) indicate that the only BUK systems active in Eastern Ukraine at the time of the tragedy were in the hands of the Ukrainian Army.

Because much of the work of the JIT takes place in Kiev, close relationships have formed between the Ukrainian experts and the Dutch and Australian experts. Commentators see this as a problem in making an objective evaluation of the evidence supplied by the Russian Federation and the Ukrainian security and intelligence service, SBU.

Geopolitical prejudices may be preventing proper consideration of Russian data but of more concern is the likely biased information provided by the Ukrainian SBU. Apparently this included telephone wire-tapping data which is very hard to verify without full and open access. Ukrainian authorities are unlikely to give this on security grounds.

There are also problems with US satellite data which the JIT says they have access to – but only in secret. These security factors make it impossible to use such data in a criminal case. Although, politically motivated press releases are great for casting suspicions  – and this has plagued this investigation from the start.

So, I welcome the new investigation by  Malaysia and the Russian Federation.They have declared their willingness to cooperate with the Dutch-led investigators.  Currently, the Dutch-led investigation is being carried out by officials from Australia, Malaysia, Belgium and Ukraine but it would gain more credibility if it included Russian investigators. The Dutch-led team claim they are making good progress and their report is just months away.

Hopefully, this report, and a similar report from the Malaysian/Russian joint investigators due in October, will show some progress which helps bring justice to the families who lost loved ones in this tragedy.

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