Former foreign minister Julie Bishop has slammed Russia for its obstruction of the investigation into Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, and welcomed the news that four men have been charged.
The commercial flight was shot down over eastern Ukraine almost five years ago in July 2014, killing 298 people. Thirty-eight Australians were among the victims.
Overnight, Dutch prosecutors laid charges against Russians Igor Girkin, Sergey Dubinsky and Oleg Pulatov, and Ukrainian Leonie Kharachenko.
All four were officials in the pro-Russian Donetsk People’s Republic, and are alleged to be responsible for bringing the Buk missile launcher that brought down MH17 into eastern Ukraine from Russia.
“I welcome this progress in the investigation of the shooting down of MH17, with the naming of these four individuals to be prosecuted for their role in what was a despicable crime,” Ms Bishop told ABC Radio this morning.
“I think it will be a relief to the families who deserve answers as to how their loved ones died aboard that plane.”
Ms Bishop, who was foreign minister in 2014, played an instrumental role in the aftermath of the incident. She led a push for the international community to gain access to the crash site, which was located near fighting between government forces and Russian-backed rebels.
“My great fear is Russia is actively undermining this process,” she said shortly after the tragedy, as investigators struggled to reach the site.
Later, as Ms Bishop pursued justice for the victims’ families, she accused Russia of being uncooperative with the Joint Investigation Team, which was comprised of Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, the Netherlands and Ukraine.
That was around the time Tony Abbott famously threatened to “shirt-front” Vladimir Putin.
When the team released a report stating the missile system used to bring down the plane was owned by the Russian army, her response was blunt.
“The only conclusion we can reasonably now draw is that Russia was directly involved in the downing of MH17,” she said in a statement last year.
“The Russian Federation must be held accountable for its conduct in the downing.”
Russia still maintains its innocence. Today its foreign ministry rejected the charges against its citizens as “absolutely unfounded” and claimed investigators had used “dubious sources of information” in an attempt to “discredit the Russian Federation”.
In her interview this morning, Ms Bishop defended the investigation team, calling it “extremely thorough and diligent and independent”.
“Russia has long waged a disinformation campaign against the Joint Investigation Team. There have been cyber attacks targeting the investigation,” she said.
“I have full confidence in the Joint Investigation Team’s independence.
“At no time did any Russia leader, whether it be their ambassador, their foreign minister or President Putin, reveal to me any information that would dispute the findings of the Joint Investigation Team.”
This isn’t the first time Ms Bishop has called out Mr Putin. She confronted him personally at the Asia Europe Meeting in Italy in 2014. She recounted the meeting in detail at UNSW in Sydney last year.
“We were sitting in this very elegant conference room in Milan, with all the world leaders from Asia and Europe around the table. I was probably the only foreign minister representing a leader there,” she said.
“I was sitting opposite President Putin. And he hadn’t agreed to a bilateral meeting with me, nor did I expect it, because I’m a foreign minister and I wasn’t his counterpart. But I had to speak to him about MH17 and Russia’s lack of co-operation.
“So, at a point in the proceedings, I saw that his advisers had left him for a cup of coffee or a break of some description, and he was alone at the table. So I hotfooted around the other side and tapped him on the shoulder, and said, ‘President Putin, I’m Julie Bishop, Australia’s foreign minister.’
“And he looked at me, and I started to talk, and because the microphones were there he said, ‘No, come over here.’ So we went away from the table.
“And we stood there, and he spoke English and understood what I said very clearly, and I could see my DFAT officer having conniptions over the other side of the room, trying to take out a phone to take a photograph of this momentous occasion.
“We spoke for about 10 minutes. I delivered Australia’s message to him as forcefully as I could. His eyes never left my face, and they are piercing blue eyes. And then he said, ‘So this is what you call a shirt-front?’
“I said: ‘It’s more of a diplomatic buttonholing.’”
At that point Mr Putin’s entourage managed to extricate him.
The four men who have been charged will likely be tried in absentia, because Russia and Ukraine do not extradite their own citizens. The trial will occur in the Netherlands on March 9 next year.
Ms Bishop is confident that even if the men don’t appear in court, the culmination of processes underway — including one aimed at holding Russia as a nation to account for the incident — will bring justice.
“I have confidence that through these complementary but separate processes, those responsible will be held to account,” she said.
“People boarding commercial planes must feel safe that their flights won’t be brought down by military force operating somewhere in the world.”
Ms Bishop’s successor Marise Payne said the laying of charges was an important step in what would be a “long process”.
“It’s not going to be concluded overnight,” she said.
“Nobody expects it to be quick and easy and we have to work within the confines of the legal systems in the Netherlands and in Europe.
“But most importantly we are working continuously with our partners in the Joint Investigation Team to endeavour to bring these people to justice.”