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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Observers Cry Foul Over Kyiv's Release of Key Witness in Flight MH17 Probe

By Nataliya Leonova September 5, 2019

Some Western observers are criticizing a Ukrainian court's decision Thursday to release Volodymyr Tsemakh, a "person of interest" in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) five years ago.

The decision, handed down by the Kyiv Court of Appeal, comes amid talks between Moscow and Kyiv on a prisoner swap that unconfirmed reports have said includes Tsemakh, a Ukrainian citizen who reportedly oversaw an anti-aircraft unit among Russia-backed rebels stationed near the commercial airliner's crash site in separatist-controlled eastern Ukraine.

Shortly after reports of Tsemakh's release circulated, Russian President Vladimir Putin told reporters gathered at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok that he believes the swap is imminent and will be "rather large-scale, and a good step forward toward normalization [of relations with Ukraine]."

In the swap, which is largely viewed as a pre-condition to quadrilateral "Normandy format" peace talks tentatively scheduled for later this month, Kyiv is seeking the return of 24 sailors detained by Russia last year off annexed Crimea, as well as filmmaker Oleg Sentsov and others, whom rights groups and the government in Kyiv say are "political prisoners" in Russia.

Moscow is seeking the release of Kirill Vyshinsky, head of Russia's state-run news agency RIA Novosti's office in Ukraine, along with numerous separatist fighters and Russian service members whom, the Kremlin has long maintained, voluntarily fought alongside them.

Last week, a Ukrainian court released Vyshinsky on his own recognizance as he awaits trial on charges of high treason that were brought against him in 2018.

Tsemakh's release also comes a day after a group of 40 members of the European Parliament wrote a letter urging Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy not to include Tsemakh in any deal, calling him a "key suspect" in the missile launch that killed all 298 Flight MH17 passengers and crew, most of whom were Malaysia-bound Dutch nationals.

Officials from an international Dutch-led investigation have voiced concerns that transferring Tsemakh to Russian soil will make it impossible to question him about the case.

Peace vs. prosecution

International observers such as Bloomberg's Leonid Bershidsky say Tsemakh's release is an indication that the newly-elected Ukrainian president "is willing to use his considerable political capital ... to prioritize humanitarian matters over holding Russia responsible for its depredations in east Ukraine."

"Such an approach would make it likely that (Zelenskiy) would also favor a broad amnesty for the separatists once the 'people's republics' [of Luhansk and Donetsk] rejoin Ukraine, something Moscow has been demanding," he wrote, adding that Tsemakh's trade shows that Zelenskiy's "desire to end the war trumps all other considerations."

Former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Stephen Pifer, however, questioned the move, telling VOA's Ukrainian service that Thursday's decision to release Tsemakh on his own recognizance "greatly complicates the [MH17] investigation."

"He has information that is very relevant to the investigation," Pifer said. "Russia knows if he's back in Russia, he's safe, he'll never be talking to the Dutch prosecutors."

Security analyst Christo Grozev, with research group Bellingcat, first reported that Tsemakh might be released as part of the prisoner exchange. Grozev says Kremlin demands for Tsemakh's release are part of a broader effort to delegitimize the MH17 investigation.

"It's not going to change the amount of evidence the investigation team has gathered – the proof will still be there – but there will be significant damage done to the perceived legitimacy of the court procedures, or at least that's what the Kremlin will try to argue," Grozev told VOA.

Without an indicted suspect or witness to take the stand in a Netherlands courtroom, Grozev said, Russia won't need to send a legal team, giving the court procedures the appearance of a one-sided case.

Three Russians and a Ukrainian were indicted over the downing of flight MH17, and court proceedings in the Netherlands are scheduled for March. But the four suspects most likely will be tried in absentia.

Although Tsemakh was not one of the four indicted, Grozev calls him the only person who had been in Ukrainian custody and who could firmly link high-ranking Russian military personnel to the 2014 disappearance.

"A lot of (valuable information) is already objectively there, but he can provide information about the chain of command, which is something that is not completely clear to the investigation," Grozev said. "He can provide information about who were the people that allowed for this to happen, allowed for the [Russian-made] Buk [anti-aircraft missile system] with a crew to be handed over.

"He would have provided confirmation about the people that were members of this crew," Grozev added, explaining that individual soldiers would not be indicted.

"The Dutch investigators will be looking for the chain of command, people who gave the instructions, and not the soldiers."

Threats and denials

Russia has always denied responsibility for shooting down the commercial passenger flight and claimed last year that the Buk missile came from Ukrainian army arsenals, but never provided solid evidence.

The MH17 investigation team, made up of detectives and prosecutors from the Netherlands, Malaysia, Australia, Belgium and Ukraine, last year said that it was convinced that the Buk missile system used to shoot down flight MH17 came from a Russian army brigade.

The Netherlands and Australia have said they hold Moscow responsible for providing the Buk missile system.

Conflict between Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed forces has killed an estimated 13,000 people in eastern Ukraine since 2014. Although a cease-fire deal ended major conflict there in 2015, small-scale clashes still occur regularly.

The Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) apprehended Tsemakh on June 27 in the Donetsk regional city of Snizhne, which is held by Moscow-backed separatists and is 20 kilometers from the Russian border.

According to the Dutch-led investigation, the Buk missile was fired six kilometers south of Snizhne.

TV footage obtained by Current Time, a Russian-language network run by VOA and Radio Free Europe, showed Tsemakh claiming that he was in charge of an anti-aircraft unit and that he helped hide the missile system in July 2014.

He also shows the interviewer where the Boeing-777 civilian airliner went down.

This story originated in VOA's Ukrainian service. Some information is from AP.

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