Families of those who died in Malaysian plane over Ukraine face long wait despite new report

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The Rev. John Mosey has advice for relatives seeking justice for their loved ones who died aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 17: Don't expect your quest to carry much weight.

Mosey thought truth would prevail after he lost his teenage daughter Helga, who was a passenger on Pan Am Flight 103 when it exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, just before Christmas in 1988. But as months turned into years and then into decades, he concluded that geopolitical realities had trumped his family's desire to know what really happened.

The British cleric from Lancaster says he thinks the truth about Lockerbie is still being hidden — and has told families who lost relatives when MH17 was shot down on July 17, 2014, over eastern Ukraine they can expect the same. In face-to-face informal counseling sessions at Lockerbie, Mosey has cautioned MH17 families that the interests of powerful countries like Russia and the United States over the area where the plane was brought down may well eclipse their desire for the straight story.

"We told them they need to really get together as a group, to strengthen each other emotionally and spiritually, and to get hold of a good independent lawyer," Mosey said of his emotional sessions with MH17 families. "I've told them that I hope in their countries the politicians can't control the legal system, which is what happened here (in Britain). That is what they'll be up against."

He's also told them to try and forgive those responsible for the destruction of their families — not just because it's in the Bible, but because you can get "eaten up" by bitterness and anger if you don't.

It's clear after the release Tuesday of a Dutch Safety Board report chronicling how MH17 was brought down by a Soviet-designed Buk missile that MH17 families face many more hurdles before any responsibility for the plane's downing can be clearly established — and compensated.

In the Lockerbie case, it took more than a decade of high-stakes diplomacy before a former Libyan intelligence agent became the only person convicted of downing the New York-bound Boeing 747, killing 259 people on the plane and 11 on the ground. Many victims' families believe the full story has never been made public, however.

The Dutch report on MH-17 — challenged immediately by the Russian government and the Russian state-controlled manufacturer of the missile — concluded that a Buk missile fired from Ukrainian territory controlled by Russian separatists brought down the Boeing 777, killing all 298 people aboard. The report stops short of assigning blame, however, so it does little to advance hopes of any criminal prosecution or civil claims.

That will have to wait for the results of a Dutch criminal investigation scheduled to come to a conclusion in January, said James Healy-Pratt, an aviation lawyer representing 50 MH17 families.

"They are investigating what crimes that have been committed and by whom and will recommend charges that should be brought against individuals," he said.

Then comes the hard part: Finding the suspects, arresting them and actually putting them on trial. Healy-Pratt, who also worked on the Lockerbie cases, said this will take time.

It is not clear under what jurisdiction any suspects would be tried, he said, because Russia has used its U.N. Security Council veto to prevent the establishment of an international tribunal to deal with the case. He believes the U.N. General Assembly will remedy this by authorizing a tribunal that could hear the case.

"I've told my clients they need to have patience and be willing to persevere," he said. "In Lockerbie it took about 15 years. There was a lot of obstruction by Libya. If that can be dispensed with here, it's possible this could be resolved in five to seven years. We really hope the Russian Federation will do the right thing and cooperate with the criminal investigation."

Healy-Pratt said Libya eventually paid out $2.4 billion to the Lockerbie families.

Geoffrey Robertson, a former U.N. judge involved in war crimes cases, said it's also possible that countries where the victims lived could bring murder or manslaughter charges in their own courts. He cited Holland, Ukraine and Australia as possibilities — but said nothing can be done yet.

"Once the individuals are identified, and once they are captured, then prosecution can go ahead, but they have to be identified first," he said.

Healy-Pratt said the new Dutch report backs his belief that Malaysia Airlines did not consider the safety risks posed by flying over the war zone in eastern Ukraine, giving the airline some responsibility under international aviation law. He said confidential negotiations are ongoing with insurers over a possible $300 million payment to the families involved.

Dutch investigators said absolutely no one "gave any thought of a possible threat to civil aviation" as war raged on last year in eastern Ukraine between Russia-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces.

Jim Swire, an English doctor who lost his 23-year-old daughter Flora when Pan Am 103 exploded over Lockerbie, said in his meetings with MH17 families they are asking why Malaysia Airlines flew over the contested zone when some other international airlines diverted their flights.

"I think it is likely to be frustrating for them. Many sounded as if they have lost confidence in their own government," he said. "It will be very slow to resolve because international politics is involved."

At the same time, Swire said, the families who lost loved ones in the skies above Ukraine are still grieving, still looking for ways to cope.

"They are faced with a lifetime of trying to adjust to the person that's missing from their family," he said. "It's a lifetime sentence."