Putin facing legal action over MH17 crash
Vladimir Putin is facing a multi-million-pound legal action for his alleged role in the shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet over eastern Ukraine.
British lawyers are preparing a class action against the Russian president through the American courts. Senior Russian military commanders and politicians close to Mr Putin are also likely to become embroiled in the legal claim.
The case would further damage relations between Mr Putin and the West, but politicians would be powerless to prevent it.
Last week, lawyers from McCue & Partners, the London law firm, flew to Ukraine for discussions about how to bring the case and where it should be filed. Victims’ families will be invited to join the action. The case will inevitably highlight the role allegedly played by Russia in stoking conflict in eastern Ukraine.
There is overwhelming, but largely circumstantial, evidence that Russian-backed rebels mistakenly brought down the Boeing 777, killing all 298 people on board, having mistaken it for a Ukrainian military aircraft.
It is almost certain the aircraft was brought down by a Russian-made SA-11 missile fired from a Buk mobile launcher that appeared to have crossed into Ukraine from Russia.
A spokesman for McCue & Partners said in a statement: “There has been talk of civil suits against Malaysia Airlines, but those immediately responsible are not only the separatists who are alleged to have fired the rocket at Flight MH17, causing the death of hundreds of innocent victims, but those, be they states, individuals or other entities, who provided them with financial and material support and the means to do so.
“Our team is presently liaising and working with partners in Ukraine and the US on whether, apart from civil suits against the airline, legal action can be brought against the perpetrators on the victims’ behalf.”
The official investigation into the atrocity, led by the Dutch, who suffered the greatest loss of life, is being hampered by armed rebels who have control of the crash site.
A civil legal case brought by the victims could embarrass Mr Putin in a way that the official inquiry may be unable to do. Simon Smith, the British ambassador to Ukraine, told The Sunday Telegraph of his grave concern that the crash site had been “compromised” and that families of victims might have to wait years for proper answers to what happened, including who ordered the attack and who supplied the weaponry and training on the missile system.
Mr Smith said: “There’s a fair amount of evidence building up that a lot of evidence has been compromised. It’s been moved, it’s not where it lay immediately after the crash happened, and that’s very regrettable.” He said that while it might only take “a surprisingly short time” to determine what missile knocked the airliner out of the sky, he warned that “there may be some lines of inquiry that take an immensely long time to work through”.
He said air crash investigators were being pragmatic. “We will work with what evidence we find,” he said, adding: “The fact that a piece of evidence has been moved does not mean it has lost all its value.”
Hopes of finally securing the crash site, protecting it from looters and militia trying to cover up their involvement, have been dealt a blow by the turmoil engulfing the Ukrainian parliament.
Ukraine was locked in political limbo on Friday night after parliament adjourned for a fortnight following the shock resignation of Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the prime minister. That may delay ratification of an international agreement giving Holland powers to secure the site.
Nine days after the crash, in which 10 Britons died, investigators have still not been able to begin collecting forensic evidence. Experts have told The Sunday Telegraph that the inquiry, hampered on the ground, could now take years to complete and for the truth to be reached.
Reed Foster, the head of the armed forces capabilities team at the intelligence and security analysts IHS Jane’s Defence, said: “It will be almost impossible to say who pushed the button. The evidence at the crash site will not tell you if it was a Ukraine or Russian operator of the Buk launcher.
“It is very easy for the Russians to maintain plausible deniability.”
Chris Yates, an independent aviation analyst who has worked as a consultant on a number of air crashes, said: “I am afraid this is going to go on for years for the simple reason the crash site is now substantially contaminated. People have been trampling all over it; debris has been shifted, cut up and removed.”
A legal source close to the planned class action said the burden of proof in a civil case was lower than in a criminal investigation, meaning that senior Kremlin politicians, including Mr Putin, could be held to account through the civil courts, even if they escape criticism in the official inquiry.
The case against Mr Putin could be worth hundreds of millions of pounds, possibly more, in potential damages. The action is likely to be brought through the US courts and could – if held liable – eventually see assets of Mr Putin and those closest to him frozen if any resulting compensation is not paid.
McCue and Partners have previously brought claims in the US courts against the former Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi for sponsoring IRA terrorism in Northern Ireland and on the British mainland.
On Friday night, the European Union announced a further 15 individuals, including Russia’s two most senior intelligence chiefs, would be added to its list of figures hit by sanctions.
Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary, will say today that Europe faces “a moment of reckoning” in how it responds to Russia.