AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Dutch judges convicted two Russian men and a Ukrainian man in absentia of murder for their role in the shooting down of Flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014 with the loss of 298 passengers and crew, and handed them life sentences.
Ukraine welcomed the ruling, which will have implications for other court cases Kyiv has filed against Russia, while Moscow called the ruling "scandalous" and said it would not extradite its citizens.
Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 departed from Amsterdam and was bound for Kuala Lumpur when it was shot down over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014, as fighting raged between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces, the precursor of this year's conflict.
The ruling came as a relief to victims' family members, more than 200 of whom attended the court in person, wiping away tears as the judgement was read.
"Only the most severe punishment is fitting to retaliate for what the suspects have done, which has caused so much suffering to so many victims and so many surviving relatives," Presiding Judge Hendrik Steenhuis said.
The three men convicted were former Russian intelligence agents Igor Girkin and Sergey Dubinskiy, and Leonid Kharchenko, a Ukrainian separatist leader.
The three were all found to have helped to arrange the transport into Ukraine of the Russian military BUK missile system that was used to shoot down the plane, though they were not the ones that physically pulled the trigger.
They are fugitives and believed to be in Russia. A fourth former suspect, Russian Oleg Pulatov, was acquitted on all charges.
The incident in 2014 left the plane's wreckage and victims' remains scattered across fields of corn and sunflowers.
Russia invaded Ukraine in February and claims to have annexed the Donetsk province where the plane was shot down.
"The families of victims wanted the truth and they wanted justice to be done and those responsible to be punished and that is what happened. I am pretty satisfied," Piet Ploeg, who heads a foundation representing victims, told Reuters. Ploeg's brother, his brother's wife and his nephew died on MH17.
Meryn O'Brien of Australia, who lost her 25-year old son Jack, said she felt relieved. "Everyone was relieved the process has come to an end, and it is very fair, and it has been meticulous."
"There's no celebration," said Jordan Withers of Britain, whose uncle Glenn Thomas died. "Nothing is going to bring any of the victims back." They came from 10 different countries.
The judgment included a 16 million euro damages award.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy hailed the first sentences handed down over MH17 as an "important decision" by the court in The Hague.
"But it is necessary that those who ordered it also end up in the dock because the feeling of impunity leads to new crimes," he wrote on Twitter. "We have to dispel this illusion. Punishment for all Russian atrocities - both then and now - will be inevitable."
The ruling found that Russia had "overall control" over the forces of the Donetsk People's Republic in Eastern Ukraine from mid May 2014.
"This is groundbreaking," said Marieke de Hoon, assistant professor of international law at Amsterdam University. The ruling was "authoritative" and would likely boost Ukraine's other international cases against Russia relating to the 2014 conflict.
'NO REASONABLE DOUBT'
Judge Steenhuis said there was ample evidence from eyewitness testimony and photographs which tracked the missile system's movements into and back out of Ukraine to Russia.
"There is no reasonable doubt" that MH17 was shot down by a Russian missile system, Steenhuis said.
Moscow denies any involvement or responsibility for MH17's downing and in 2014 it also denied any presence in Ukraine.
In a statement, the Russian foreign ministry said "throughout the trial the court was under unprecedented pressure from Dutch politicians, prosecutors and the media to impose a politically motivated outcome".
"We deeply regret that the District Court in The Hague disregarded the principles of impartial justice in favour of the current political situation, thus causing a serious reputational blow to the entire judicial system in the Netherlands," it added.
Prosecutors had charged the four men with shooting down an airplane and with murder in a trial held under Dutch law, as more than half of the victims were Dutch. Phone call intercepts that formed a key part of the evidence suggested the men believed they were targeting a Ukrainian fighter jet.
Steenhuis said that, while that counted for something in terms of lessening the severity of their criminal responsibility, they still had a murderous intent and the consequences of their actions were huge.
Of the suspects, only Pulatov had pleaded not guilty via lawyers he hired to represent him. The others were tried in absentia and none attended the trial.
The police investigation was led by the Netherlands, with participation from Ukraine, Malaysia, Australia and Belgium.
Thursday's ruling is not the final word on holding people accountable for MH17, Dutch and Australian authorities said.
Andy Kraag, the head of the police investigation, said research was continuing into possible suspects higher in the chain of command. Investigators are also looking at the crew of the missile system which launched the fatal rocket.
The Dutch and Australian governments, which hold Russia responsible, have started a proceeding against the Russian Federation at the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).
(Reporting by Toby Sterling, Stephanie van den Berg and Bart Meijer; Editing by Jon Boyle, Alex Richardson, Toby Chopra, Alexandra Hudson)