Will there be justice for the Malaysian victims of MH17?

Photo: Ministerie van Defensie/CC BY 1.0

The publication of initial findings into the crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 points the finger squarely at Russia. But will an investigation led by the west do justice for the Malaysians who lost their lives and the state airline that saw its reputation crippled?

By Dung Phan

On the day the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) released its investigative report on the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, we heard little about the emotions of the families of the tragic victims. But there is no doubt about the terrible human price that was paid; behind a detailed yet conclusive report is a series of political-motivated allegations and conspiracies between the West and Russia.

A Dutch-led investigation, carried out by detectives from Australia, Belgium, Malaysia and Ukraine last week claimed the plane was hit by a Russian-made Buk-9M38 missile travelling from Russia. It was fired from a rebel-held village in eastern Ukraine and transported back to Russia the next day. The incident occurred in the context of a conflict between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed rebels, leaving Malaysia Airlines suffering from the crippling blow of two major airplane disasters in a very short space of time.

Among the 298 passengers and crew on board, 43 victims were Malaysians. Norlin Mohd Noor, the sister of Noor Rahimmah who perished in the tragedy, expressed her gratitude on the interim report by the JIT. She said it “gives me a bit more information on how the tragedy took place,” adding that she and her family hoped the Malaysian government would take action against the perpetrators. “It was a heinous crime and those involved should get severe punishment.”

Harun Calehr, who lost two nephews in the crash, said he was not holding out much hope. “I think there will never be a judicial conclusion to this nightmare,” he told Reuters. “Even a political agreement with financial compensation for the victims’ families by Russia and Ukraine seems tenuous, and perhaps two decades in the future.”

False hopes

The findings revealed so far leave many lingering questions. It seems the international community were quick to implicate Russia’s responsibility even before the investigation. In an opinion article, the New York Times even portrays the MH17 investigation as a meeting where the detectives are “putting the pieces of the puzzle together, with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia as a centrepiece.”

It also called into question the veracity of the report in terms of the investigating team members. “Ukraine has been fully involved in this investigation, which gives them a chance to obfuscate, or cover up, or produce fake intelligence and fake evidence,” said Annie Machon, a former intelligence officer from MI5 – the UK Security Service.

By creating a scenario where the perpetrators face future prosecution politicians are giving false hopes to the families of the victims. Russia, who has predictably denied the accusations, remains as intransigent as possible. A St Petersburg-based company even produced a children’s bed shaped like a Buk missile launcher.

TIME reported that a journalist for state-run Channel One, suggested although Russia had “at least offered to give your team several documents” as evidence and the investigators did not accept them “because they did not support your scenario.” Wilbert Paulissen, one of the lead investigators said Russia had not provided any such material, even though his team had made “several requests” to the Russian government during its two-year investigation. The team’s lead, Fred Westerbeke, added that they only received “partial answers” to some of the team’s questions. As long as there is no cooperation or compromise between involved parties, any breakthroughs in the investigation are unlikely.

The Malaysian government’s stake

Malaysia is one of only two Southeast Asia countries to be elected to the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s (ICAO) council, the main decision-making body of the United Nations’ civil aviation arm, after a casting vote in Montreal, Canada on October 4.

The honour will give Malaysia the chance to “press for the formulation of new laws, such as the real-time tracking of aircraft,” said Dato Kok Soo Chon, the chief MH370 investigator and former Civil Aviation Department director-general. Already new regulations that allow airplane tracking in real-time came into force in March this year due to efforts put forward by Malaysia in 2014.

Whether the country can take advantage of this opportunity to raise its concern over the investigation remains to be seen.  However, Ukraine’s ambassador to Malaysia, Olexander Nechytaylos, said in September that the two countries are looking to set up a joint commission to expand military-technical cooperation. “The most important ‘work’ for me now is to keep the relations close in order for us to find the perpetrators responsible for the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17,” he added.

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak has yet to point the finger at any party. However, by leaving the issue to the superpowers and not being vocal enough, it appears the plight of 43 Malaysians and one airline is not enough to raise his head from his own mire of personal issues.