By Toby Sterling
AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – Suspects in the downing of Malaysian airlines flight MH17 in eastern Ukraine in 2014, in which all 298 people aboard were killed, will be tried in a Dutch court and under Dutch law, the Netherlands’ foreign ministry said on Wednesday.
The move to choose the Netherlands was agreed to by the five countries which have been conducting a preliminary criminal investigation.
Victims of the disaster, which occurred over territory held by pro-Russia separatists fighting Ukrainian government forces, came from 17 countries, and included 196 Dutch citizens.
The Dutch Safety Board, which investigated the cause of the crash, concluded in October 2015 that the plane was shot down by a Russian-made ground-to-air rocket.
Moscow, which denies any involvement in the fighting in eastern Ukraine, also denies one of its rockets could have been used against MH17.
The decision follows attempts, blocked by Russia in 2015, to set up an international court over the incident.
The extent to which Russia will cooperate with a Dutch court if prosecutors name Russian suspects or request information is not clear.
Wim de Bruin, spokesman for the Netherlands’ national prosecutor’s office, said countries did cooperate on criminal investigations and had had communication over MH17.
The Dutch-led team of international investigators, which also included Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, and Ukraine, concluded in September that the rocket was fired from territory in eastern Ukraine held by pro-Russia separatists.
No suspects have been named, though Dutch Chief Prosecutor Fred Westerbeke said last year his office has identified 100 “persons of interest” in the investigation, including those who organized the arrival of the rocket and oversaw its transport from Russia to Ukraine and back.
De Bruin said that list has since been further refined but prosecutors were not close to any indictment.
Dutch foreign Minister Bert Koenders said Wednesday cooperation among the five investigating countries would continue during the “prosecution phase.”
“This cooperation is vital, given the complexity of this case,” Koenders said in a statement.
“Flight MH17 was downed in a conflict zone which was the scene of heavy fighting and which is still difficult to access.”
Koenders added: “We’re still seeing a great deal of disinformation and attempts to discredit the investigation.”
Russia has suggested alternative theories to explain the plane’s downing, including that Ukraine is responsible.
The Dutch-led investigative team said in February it was impossible to establish the authenticity of radar images released by Russia in 2016 in a nonstandard format, two years after they had been requested.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said in a statement his government had “full confidence” in the Dutch legal system, and urged “other states” to cooperate, as required by U.N. Security Council resolution 2166. In all, 38 Australians died in the crash.
“While we cannot take away the grief of those who lost their loved ones because of this atrocious act, we are committed to holding the perpetrators to account and achieving justice for all the victims.”
It remains unclear what charges suspects would face if it were found that the plane was shot down in the mistaken belief it was a Ukrainian military plane.
On Wednesday De Volkskrant newspaper quoted Tjibbe Joustra, who led the Dutch Safety Board investigation, as saying “I don’t see anybody going to jail quickly, but I think the truth will come out.”
He told the paper he believed trials may have to be held in absentia.
(Reporting by Toby Sterling; Editing by Richard Balmforth)