The lawyer representing families of Malaysia Airlines crash victims has said the downing of MH17 is a “war crime” and laid the blame with Russia.
Chicago-based aviation lawyer Floyd Wisner filed a lawsuit last Wednesday on behalf of the families of 17 victims of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 against Igor Girkin, Russian colonel of the Federal Security Service, who played a key role as an organizer for the Donetsk People’s Republic.
Although the lawsuit is pursuing Girkin for 783 million euros ($852.98 million) in damages Wisner says the suit really is not about money. “It’s an attempt to focus attention on the concerns of our victims families, perhaps they are getting lost in the shuffle,” he says. “It really seems to us, and to them, that not much has been done. No perpetrators have been brought to criminal justice and the families feel somewhat forgotten. They want to get some kind of answers.”
Wisner says he chose to prosecute Girkin because he is the visible voice of Russia in Ukraine. “The immediate blame is who fired that missile and under whose direction, with whose support? I think it all points back to Russia.”
The ultimate goal of the suit is to find the truth of what happened to the victims of the crash. “I think what the families would love is to find the individual or individuals responsible and have them tried for war crimes by an international tribunal, that’s what they really want.” Wisner said, “The families are hoping that this lawsuit will put pressure on Girkin and indirectly the Russians to do something.”
In regards to the legal charges he hopes will be brought against the perpetrators in this case Wisner said: “I would definitely call the downing of the plane a war crime, it’s definitely a criminal act. It’s much worse than a war crime, it’s an act of terrorism on innocent people.” Regardless of the terminology, Wisner plans to precede with the case in the same manner. “The definition might change the approach politically. But the more you see Russia involved in this, Russia’s knowledge, Russia’s backing of this incident, that’s got to make a stronger case for an international tribunal and some justice.”
Last year, Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that the downing of MH17 “may amount to a war crime.”
Wisner believes Russia’s approval and involvement in the investigation is essential for the truth to come out about the MH17 tragedy. “Nothing is going to happen unless Russia participates and cooperates and backs this whole thing,” he says. “If a tribunal is formed without Russia’s involvement and approval they will always be able to say ‘well it was wrong, it wasn’t transparent’ or something. Russia should participate in the tribunal, so they can’t later claim it was unfair. I think they have a lot of information.”
Russia proposed a draft resolution to the U.N. on Monday continuing to reject the formation of a U.N.-backed international tribunal and calling for more transparency into the investigation of the MH17 crash.
Wisner teamed up with James Healy-Pratt, of Stewarts Law in London, to file the MH17 case in the United States under the U.S. Torture Victims Protection Act of 1991. The statute allows suits to be filed in the U.S. against foreign nationals who have committed torture or extrajudicial killings on behalf of a foreign government, which is in direct opposition to their national laws.
Kuala Lumpur-bound Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down last July over a rebel-held area in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region. The crash killed all 298 passengers on board.
The incident prompted the European Union and Ukraine to accuse Russian-backed groups in the region of shooting the plane down, which has led the EU to impose sanctions on members of the Russian establishment linked to the rebel group. Russia and the separatists continue to deny their involvement.
Although the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2166, focusing on the investigation into the cause of the MH17 crash, passed on July 21 of 2014, little progress has been made in the investigation. Russia has consistently opposed the investigation. Russian president Vladimir Putin has previously said that organizing an international tribunal to establish who downed the jet would be “counterproductive.”
Russia and the Russian-backed rebels deny they are responsible for shooting down the plane and have provided alternative theories for the incident. The Russian Ministry of Defence held a press conference last summer claiming a Ukrainian Su-25 fighter had shot down MH17.
Putin’s aide Dmitry Peskov told state news agency Itar-Tass earlier this week that the Kremlin’s position remained the same and he could neither confirm nor deny Russia would veto a vote on the UN Security Council’s investigation.