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5 Years After Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 Was Shot Down, Charges Have Been Filed

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Five years after Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine, charges have been filed. Today, three Russians and a Ukrainian were charged with the murder of 300 passengers and crew who died on the plane. Reporter Teri Schultz says the prosecution is going ahead despite doubts that the accused will ever appear in court.

TERI SCHULTZ, BYLINE: Dutch prosecutors have set a trial date of March 9 for Igor Girkin, Sergey Dubinsky, Oleg Pulatov and Leonid Kharchenko, the first four suspects to be named criminally responsible for the deaths of almost 300 people, passengers on an aircraft shot out of the sky during a flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur by what international investigators say was a Russian-made Buk missile. It was launched from eastern Ukraine, an area under the control of separatists backed by Moscow. Investigators say the missile was launched from a vehicle belonging to Russia's 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Foreign language spoken).

SCHULTZ: Tapped phone calls along with radar data, open-source photos, video, social media entries and testimony from some 300 witnesses now have led investigators to the three former Russian military and intelligence officials and a Ukrainian national who worked with them in the breakaway region. Dutch public prosecutor Fred Westerbeke says the team expects to name more suspects, which might include active duty Russian officers, but says it's a painstaking process.

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FRED WESTERBEKE: We have now the information and the proof in our dossier, in our file, to take the step that we are going to take now against the four people we mentioned. For others, we are not that far at this moment.

SCHULTZ: Today Moscow reiterated its denial of any involvement in the shooting down of MH17. Westerbeke rejects that.

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WESTERBEKE: The Russian Federation is involved in this tragedy, in this crime, in one way or the other. One day after 17 of July, they could have been in the position to tell us exactly what happened because they know.

SCHULTZ: But what they know may never be heard in the Dutch court. While international arrest warrants are being issued for the four accused, Russia does not extradite its citizens. Prosecutors say they'll request the suspects be handed over under the terms of a mutual legal assistance agreement, but they admit that's a longshot. Still, they said, at the beginning of their investigation, plenty of people thought they'd never even get this far. For NPR News, I'm Teri Schultz.

(SOUNDBITE OF RACHEL ZEFFIRA'S "THE DESERTERS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.