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Awaiting truth and closure

AFTERMATH: The political context for the downing of MH17 has andcontinues to be grossly under-reported. Picture shows the crash site.

AFTERMATH: The political context for the downing of MH17 has andcontinues to be grossly under-reported. Picture shows the crash site.   | Photo Credit: Vadim Ghirda

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For the families of the victims of the MH17 crash, closure can only come when an impartial and objective investigation by experts establishes the truth

The evidence for Russian complicity in the shooting down by a surface-to-air missile of Malaysia Airlines MH17, as it flew on its sanctioned flight path on July 17 through the skies of eastern Ukraine, waits for the report by a team of independent international experts set up on July 22 by the United Nations Security Council through Resolution.

The demand for an impartial and objective international probe was voiced early in the aftermath of the crash by countries such as China and Russia — and Malaysia, a country which has suffered two plane disasters in the course of just six months.

Sane voices were drowned in the hysterical frenzy that emanated from western capitals and their media outlets after the crash. Blame was quickly apportioned for the tragedy in which 298 innocent civilians died, and a theory took shape: Ukrainian separatists — “terrorists” as the Kiev government prefers to call them — fired the missile that brought the plane down; their Russian handlers provided the murder weapon — a Russian-made surface-to-air SA-11 or BUK missile system.

The “evidence” for this case is largely a Kiev construct and remains unverified. It consists of a clutch of assertions based on information from social media sources: conversations between rebel commanders and their Russian handlers allegedly intercepted by Ukrainian intelligence, and photographs of the movements of surface-to-air missiles from Russia to rebel-held territory.

However, in utter contempt and disregard of the fairness doctrine which holds that guilt must be proven before punishment is accorded, Ukraine, the U.S. and its allies in the European Union have imposed punishing trade sanctions on Russia, even as NATO forces push towards Russia’s borders and beef-up operational and combat training activities in the Black Sea and Baltic Sea areas.

The sanctions, meant as a warning for the “illegal annexation of territory and deliberate destabilisation of a neighbouring sovereign country” limits access for Russian State-owned financial institutions to EU capital markets, imposes an embargo on trade in arms, establishes an export ban for dual use goods for military end users, and curtails Russian access to sensitive technologies, particularly in the field of the oil sector.

Red herrings

Kiev threw several red herrings into the post-crash whodunit speculations. One of the earliest was that the flights’ black boxes were taken to Moscow — an allegation that fell apart soon enough. The rebels looted the crash site and destroyed evidence, Kiev alleged. False again, it would appear. The family of Cameron Dalziel, a British victim of the crash, had to issue a statement through the British Foreign Office denying claims of theft. “We have had no notification that either his credit cards or cell phone have been used. They were cancelled for security reasons only, as you would when any card or cellphone is lost,” his family said.

As the Ukrainian Army continues bombing in the area around the crash site, it has become too dangerous for the investigation team to visit the crash. Not surprisingly, the rebel forces in the area are being held responsible for this — the same forces that guarded and helped evacuate the bodies of the victims from a 40-kilometre radius; the very rebel forces praised by Peter van Vliet, the leader of a Dutch forensics team who told the BBC, “They did a hell of a job in a hell of a place.”

A spokesperson from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on July 31 denied reports that the investigators were “turned back” from the site. It was a decision the team took in the light of fighting in the area, he said.

On July 23, American intelligence confirmed that its satellite data showed that a missile brought the plane down, but not who fired the missile.

Robert Oulds, Director of the Bruges Group and an expert on European affairs, argues that if the U.S. and Ukrainian security services had prior knowledge of deadly surface-to-air missiles in the possession of rebel groups, they should have issued warnings to commercial airlines not to fly over Ukraine.

“Either way, ultimately it is the West that is responsible for this tragedy. Either they knew and failed to take action in circumstances where it was inevitable that a plane was likely to be shot down, or they are lying and the missiles were not supplied by Russia,” Dr. Oulds told The Hindu.

“They have provided no proof that the missiles were sourced from Russia, but if they did know, then they almost let this happen. They should have told planes not to fly over what is a war zone where rebels had been shooting planes and helicopters for the simple reason that the Ukrainian military is bombing civilians in the east of Ukraine.”

The political context for the downing of MH17, which includes the Ukranian Army’s ongoing offensive against its own people in the eastern provinces, has and continues to be grossly under-reported.

Civilian toll

In June and July, 250 civilians were killed and 850 wounded in the Luhansk region alone, according to a report published by OSCE. Half a million Ukrainians have become refugees, fleeing from war zones, according to United Nations estimates. Even as the bodies of the victims of the crash were being removed, “hundreds of civilians,” according to a BBC reporter, were fleeing the area to escape from shelling.

This then is the region in which MH17 met its end — a war zone where civilian killings by the Ukrainian armed forces are steadily growing, and where anti-Kiev rebel forces have in the last few months brought down several Ukrainian military planes and helicopters that were used in the war on innocent citizens. MH17 was the unintended victim of the conflict.

Indeed, the Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmerman’s moving evocation of the last-minute thoughts and actions of those condemned to die aboard MH17 could indeed apply to the hundreds of other faultless victims of indiscriminate shelling and rocket launches by Ukrainian military forces over the last two months.

“Did they lock hands with their loved ones?” he said in his address to the UN Security Council. “Did they hold their children close to their hearts? Did they look each other in the eyes one final time in a wordless goodbye? We will never know.”

Consider the U.S.-led international outcry over the MH17 disaster in contrast to a similar episode that took place in 1988. Iran Air Flight 655, a civilian passenger flight from Tehran to Dubai was shot down on July 3 by the U.S. Navy guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes while flying over Iranian territorial waters and on its usual flight path.

All 290 on board, including 66 children and 16 crewmembers, were killed. By way of explanation the U.S. government said its warship incorrectly identified the Iranian Airbus A300 as an attacking F-14A Tomcat fighter. It refused to apologise, and it was only in 1996 when the case came up for final settlement before the International Court of Justice that it expressed regret for the terrible tragedy. Each of the families of the Iranian victims was paid a compensation of $213,103.45.

For the families of the victims of the MH17 crash, closure can only come when an impartial and objective investigation by experts establishes the truth. For the people of eastern Ukraine, those who journalist-commentator John Pilger has memorably described in a recent article as “media unpeople,” the victims of atrocities that are “minimised, or suppressed,” by the West and its media, there is neither security nor closure — not for a long time to come.

parvathi.menon@ thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Jun 21, 2018 3:56:05 AM | http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/awaiting-truth-and-closure/article6281127.ece