THE HAGUE, NETHERLANDS – Dutch investigators expressed concern Thursday they will be unable to question a Ukrainian man over the downing of flight MH17 after a court in Kiev freed him pending trial.
The release of Vladimir Tsemakh, an alleged air defense specialist for pro-Russian separatists, comes amid speculation he might be part of a prisoner swap with Russia.
“We would have wanted him to be available for the investigation, and of course we would regret it if we can’t because he’s being released,” Brechtje van de Moosdijk, spokeswoman for the Dutch-led MH17 Joint Investigation Team, told AFP.
Asked if Tsemakh’s release makes it harder to quiz him over the shooting down of the Malaysia Airlines plane in 2014, she replied: “It looks like that.”
But she insisted the trial of four other MH17 suspects due to start in the Netherlands next year “will just go on as planned.”
Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok said he was in “close contact with the Ukrainian authorities,” adding that “we’re on top of it,” Dutch news agency ANP reported.
The Malaysia Airlines passenger plane traveling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot down by a Russian-made BUK missile over eastern Ukraine, with the loss of all 298 people on board.
A judge in Kiev on Thursday ruled to release Tsemakh — who was captured in June — but warned him not to try to flee.
Local media say the Kremlin wants him to be part of what Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday called a “large-scale” prisoner swap with Kiev that was nearing completion.
“We are very concerned that he will disappear and will not be available for the criminal case. … He is a suspect,” Piet Ploeg, chairman of the Dutch MH17 victims foundation, told AFP.
“There is a chance that we’ll never see him again.”
Forty MEPs had urged Ukraine’s president in a letter Wednesday not to hand over prisoner Tsemakh to Russia, describing him as a “key suspect.
“It is obviously of high concern,” Dutch MEP Kati Piri told AFP. “It doesn’t look like a positive signal, especially after Putin also made comments this afternoon that the deal is almost done.”
She said that if Tsemakh was swapped, Ukraine would be “breaching its commitment to the investigation and this will seriously for sure also affect the talks with the European Union.”