The US might have crucial satellite photos of the missile used to bring down MH17 six years ago but the images are classified, a court has heard.
Prosecutor Thijs Berger told the District Court of The Hague the missile that downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 wasn’t detected on Russian civilian radar, but experts told investigators it might have been too small or fast.
Russians Oleg Pulatov, Igor Girkin, Sergey Dubinsky and Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko are being tried in absentia in the Netherlands for murder and the destruction of a civilian airliner.
All 298 on board the plane, including 38 people who called Australia home, were killed in July 2014 when the plane was shot down in Ukraine over an area where government forces were fighting Russian-backed rebels.
Mr Berger said one expert argued Russia could have easily removed radar evidence of the missile.
“According to him, this is a very simple operation and that removal cannot be determined afterwards,” he said on Tuesday.
But US intelligence did detect a missile launch near the town of Snizhne and gave a classified briefing to the Dutch chief prosecutor.
“Part of the underlying metadata and research data has not been made available for inspection,” Mr Berger told the court.
“The US authorities have indicated that they cannot provide more information about the detection of the missile other than in the written statement and that it has been given confidentially to the Dutch national prosecutor.”
Mr Berger said the international Joint Investigation Team, which includes Australia, had narrowed down the cause of the plane crash to rebels near the town of Snizhne firing a Buk-TELAR missile at MH17.
“We believe that this investigation has been nearly completed,” he said.
The court was told how investigators honed in on a witness who saw a missile being fired from a field near Snizhne.
A journalist found burnt grass in the same field with evidence of a fire later confirmed by satellite images.
Prosecutor Ward Ferdinandusse said the weapon’s route from Russia into Ukraine was then plotted using witnesses’ social media posts, satellite photographs and other open-source investigation techniques (OSINT).
Investigators also used OSINT tools to track the missile launcher’s return to Russia.
These helped them find a video shot in Luhansk of a Buk-TELAR missing one missile being driven towards Russia after MH17 had been shot down.
The launcher has been identified through 15 unique features as Buk-TELAR No.3X2 of the Russian 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade.
Mr Berger said all other crash scenarios touted by Russia had been methodically eliminated using forensic data, radar imagery, satellite photos, phone intercepts and military files.
Other scenarios that were ruled out include an onboard explosion, an attack by a Ukrainian fighter jet, a surface-to-air missile other than a Buk, a Buk missile fired from another location, or a Buk fired by Ukrainian armed forces.
Mr Berger said Russian documents supporting the last theory had been manipulated.
“We have to conclude that the Russian Federation did not act in good faith in this investigation,” he said.
“As we said in March, those falsifying evidence and coming up with contradictory stories over and over again are not the best sources.”
Mr Berger said Russia had repeatedly ignored or refused to respond to inquiries about the location of the weapon and the identities of its crew between June and July 2014.
He said investigators were determined to hunt down those responsible for firing the missile.
The motive for shooting down MH17 is also being probed, but intercepted phone calls suggest it was mistaken for a Ukrainian military aircraft.
“Of course, mainly for the relatives, it is desirable to be more clear about the reason for the shooting down of MH17,” Mr Berger said.
The trial continues on Wednesday.