Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on Thursday said better evidence was needed before Russia can be held responsible for downing Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, rejecting the work of international investigators, including one from his own country.
Mahathir said the investigation was biased from the beginning in its efforts to determine how 298 passengers and crew were killed over Ukrainian airspace five years ago. On Wednesday, investigators had announced that three Russians and a Ukrainian would be tried for murder for their roles in shooting down the plane with a Russian-made missile.
“We are very unhappy because from the very beginning, it became a political issue on how Russia was accused of wrongdoing. Even before they examined it, they already said Russia, and now they say they have proof,” Mahathir said on Thursday. “So, it is very difficult for us to accept that.
“We want proof of guilt that Russia did it. But so far there is no proof, only hearsay,” he told reporters in Putrajaya, the seat of Malaysia’s government.
On Wednesday, Malaysian Solicitor General Hanafiah bin Zakaria told reporters in the Netherlands that the decision to charge was made based on an extensive investigation and legal research.
Hanafiah serves on the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) with representatives from Australia, Belgium, the Netherlands and the Ukraine.
“The objective of the JIT is to complete investigations, gather evidence or interview witnesses for the purpose of prosecuting the wrongdoers,” he said. “Malaysia’s stand is to go by the rule of law and due process. So we are with JIT with regard to the findings.”
At the same press conference, Dutch prosecutor Fred Westerbeke said the investigation established Russian involvement in the downing of the Malaysian plane.
MH17 was shot down on July 17, 2014, over territory held by pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine as it was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. Russia seized Ukrainian territory on the Crimea Peninsula in 2014 and is said to support the separatists in the country.
Westerbeke said investigators determined the Russian government had made available the BUK Telar missile used to shoot down the aircraft
“We have all the materials that can substantiate that,” he said. “It also means, if you look back, you can establish that, after July 17, 2014, the Russian Federation has not disclosed anything about what happened. It is a slap in the face of all the relatives of the victims and the bereaved.”
JIT announced that four suspects – Igor Girkin, a former colonel with the Russian Federal Security Service; Sergey Dubinsky and Oleg Pulatov, who worked for the Russian Military Intelligence Service; and Leonid Kharchenko, a former Ukrainian military commander, would face murder charges, and that the trial would take place in March 2020 in the Netherlands.
The four are likely to be tried in absentia as Russia and the Ukraine are not expected to extradite the suspects.
Foreign ministry statement
Malaysia exports palm oil to Russia, and Mahathir asked Putin for his country’s help in November 2018 in maintaining Malaysia’s fleet of Russian planes, according to media reports.
Four months earlier, the Malaysian defense minister announced that only four of 28 Russian-built fighter jets in its air force fleet can fly.
Asked if his stance on the JIT was due to the country’s ties to Russia, Mahathir said “No, no. That is different,” according to The Star.
Prior to Mahathir’s comments, the Malaysian foreign ministry released a brief statement that it remained “committed to the JIT process” while adding, “conclusions must be based on evidence, and not be politically motivated.”
The widow of MH17 co-pilot Ahmad Hakimi Hanapi called Mahathir’s comments “hurtful.”
“It was actually very hurtful for him to make that statement. The work put in for the investigation is very extensive. You can't begin to imagine how detailed it is,” Asmaa Aljuned told BenarNews on Thursday.
“You don’t know the amount of data they had to go through … it took them five years to do this,” she said. “I have utmost respect and gratitude for the JIT.”
Doubts about investigation
Mahathir had expressed doubts about the MH17 investigation in May at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan in Tokyo.
“We know the missile that brought down the plane is a Russian-type missile, but it could also be made in Ukraine,” Mahathir said at the time, according to Malaysian national news agency Bernama. “You need strong evidence to show it was fired by the Russians.”
The Russian government agreed with Mahathir’s concerns as it lambasted JIT’s findings.
“Who allowed flights over a military zone? Was it Russia? No. Where were the fighter jets?” Russian President Vladimir Putin told reporters on Thursday, according to Agence France-Presse.
“There are lots of questions there. But they are not being answered. They’ve simply chosen once and for all and picked the guilty party. Such an approach to the investigation does not suit us,” Putin said, echoing Mahathir’s statement.
Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said the Russian government had provided evidence that the missile belonged to the Ukraine and that video clips supporting JIT conclusions were fabricated.
“Moreover, Russia has suggested working together from the outset. Instead, international investigators excluded Russia from full participation in the JIT, reducing Russian efforts to a secondary role,” the ministry said in a statement obtained by BenarNews.