By G9ija

A Dutch court has found three men guilty of the murder of 298 people onboard flight MH17, which was shot down by a Russian surface-to-air missile when it was flying over eastern Ukraine in 2014.

The court handed down sentences of life imprisonment to Russian nationals Igor Girkin and Sergey Dubinskiy and a Ukrainian, Leonid Kharchenko, after finding them guilty of bringing down the plane and the murder of everyone onboard. They were ordered to pay “more than €16m” in compensation to the victims.

The three men responsible remain at large and it remains unclear if they will ever serve their sentences.

A third Russian national, Oleg Pulatov, was acquitted of the charges owing to lack of evidence about his role in the firing of the missile.

In 2014, all four men were fighters for the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, a pro-Russia separatist movement. None of the men appeared in court and only Pulatov chose to appoint lawyers, who pleaded not guilty on his behalf.

The presiding judge, Hendrik Steenhuis, said the court had concluded that MH17 was shot down by a Russian-made BUK missile from an agricultural field in eastern Ukraine, citing extensive evidence that did not leave “any possibility for reasonable doubt whatsoever”.

The court found that Russia had overall control of the separatist forces in eastern Ukraine at the time when the plane was shot down, he said.

The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said it was an important court decision.

In a tweet, he said: “Holding to account masterminds is crucial too, as the feeling of impunity leads to new crimes. We must dispel this illusion. Punishment for all [Russia’s] atrocities then & now is inevitable.”

The verdict caps a 32-month trial that began in March 2020 in a secure courtroom at Schiphol airport, from where flight MH17 took off on 17 July 2014 bound for Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia.

Only a few hours into the flight, a missile exploded just above and to the left of the cockpit, causing the plane to break up in midair, according to an international investigation. Everyone onboard was killed.

The victims came from 17 countries and included 198 Dutch nationals, 43 Malaysians, 38 Australians and 10 from the UK. They included families with children, young couples and retirees, teenagers celebrating the end of exams, professionals heading to conferences, a nun, a shipping worker going home. Eighty of the victims were children.

The Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, reacting to the judgement said: “This is yet another step in the pursuit of truth and justice for the victims and their loved ones. And important as this verdict is, it is not the final conclusion … It is not the end. All parties will have the right to appeal, so the judgment is not yet final. But to reiterate, an important step has been taken today.”

The Netherlands and Australia said in 2018 that Russia was responsible for the disaster, after investigators concluded the BUK missile had come from a Russian military base.

The Kremlin has always denied any involvement, while claiming it was excluded from the investigation.

Girkin, who goes by the nom de guerre Igor Strelkov, was a commander of the separatist-backed forces in 2014. He is believed to have returned to the battlefield in Ukraine, raising slim hopes that he may be captured and eventually face justice.