Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was shot down by Russian-backed forces in Donbas in July 2014. There were 283 passengers and 15 crew on board the aircraft. All of them died.
Dutch lawyer Veeru Mewa, who specializes in air disasters, represents the interests of a hundred relatives of the MH17 victims. In November 2018, they filed a lawsuit against Russia at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
Veeru Mewa had previously dealt with such cases as the crash of a Turkish Airlines Boeing 737 that performed an Istanbul-Amsterdam flight and crashed during landing in 2009, as well as the crash of a Afriqiyah Airways Airbus A330 in Tripoli in 2010.
The lawyer says that he feels honored to represent the interests of the relatives of the MH17 victims. Veeru Mewa spoke in an exclusive interview with Ukrinform about the details of their suit against Russia at the ECHR and said what the MH17 tragedy means to him.
CLAIM AS A WAY TO ESTABLISH THE TRUTH
Question: According to the Montreal Convention, airline companies are obliged to pay compensation to the families of victims of a plane crash in the amount of at least 130,000 euros. How was agreement reached with Malaysia Airlines regarding the compensation in 2016, and how much was paid?
Answer: We've dealt with Malaysia Airlines and their insurance companies. In the case of Malaysia Airlines, the clients find that Malaysia Airlines is liable by flying the zone they flew. What kind of damages you'll have to think about? There are several kinds of damages: funeral cost, but also kids who stayed behind, lost their parents, they cannot be financially supported anymore. So, that kind of damages has been compensated by Malaysia Airlines.
Q: What is the amount of compensation?
A: Compensation has already been paid. We cannot disclose the amount.
Q: What are the relatives of the victims seeking now?
A: Every single family member is still trying to find the puzzle. They want to know what happened. The Joint Investigation Team is trying to find out what happened. They are looking for evidence, who is responsible, and they are also looking at Russia because it looks like Russia has a big role in this. And when they, the Dutch authorities and also the clients approach Russia, Russia says: "We didn't do anything wrong. You have to be in Ukraine and look at Ukraine. You don't do anything against Ukraine." And the clients do not agree with that. They have seen that several years ago already Russia was spreading information that was not correct - the information about a jet that was near, information about a radar, images that were not true, even false.
So the way Russia is acting was the reason for our clients to ask us as a law office to do anything against Russia to find out the truth. When you go to the European Court [of Human Rights], there is a possibility at the European Court to say: "Russia is acting in a way that is violating human rights." But we are arguing in the European Court that Russia is violating the human rights of the family members and that they have violated human rights of the passengers.
Q: You said that Russia responds to all accusations that it is not to blame for the tragedy and urges to look at Ukraine. Is it true that lawyers planned to file a lawsuit against Ukraine?
A: You may say something about Ukraine that they should have acted better but in order to make the whole country liable for something that happened, you need to do something more than just say that they should have closed their airspace.
If you want to act against Ukraine or each country, you have to do it within six months after you know or are convinced that the country is liable. So, we are not doing anything with that. I know that other lawyers are looking at that.
What is important is that Ukraine has given very good cooperation in finding out the truth. That's being appreciated by family members.
Q: Several different groups of lawyers are dealing with the MH17 case. Your American colleagues are considering bringing Sberbank of Russia to account for the crash of flight MH17, namely, for financing separatists. In fact, a lawsuit was filed against Sberbank due to the provision of money to those who launched a missile that shot down MH17. Is it possible to sue Sberbank of Russia?
A: There are two ways of looking at that. We have had contact with our American colleagues. They investigated this. It is our conclusion that it is not possible because this is American law that makes it able for American citizens to have litigation in the U.S. against a U.S. Bank. Sberbank has a branch there, sited in New York. But it is something else to have this litigation in the U.S. as a non-U.S. citizen, as a European. Because as a European you cannot go to the U.S. and say: "I want to use the U.S. law and have litigation in the U.S.." There are lawyers who see that differently, and I respect that. And they are trying to do something with that. We as "Beer advocaten" do not believe in that, so we advise our clients not to do anything with that.
Q: At the beginning, all lawyers were in one group but then everyone went his own way after agreement was reached with Malaysia Airlines. Why did the group break up?
A: We had to leave the group because we do not want to do the actions the rest of the group is going to do. As you said before, actions against Sberbank in the U.S., actions against Ukraine. That happened because lawyers are people who think themselves, individually. They represent their own clients. Sometimes lawyers tell different things but the main thing is a client.
We did not want to argue, so we could not cooperate anymore. That's why we decided to leave the group. Yes, we have our own clients, but still we all stay together against this tragedy.
A UNIQUE CASE FOR THE ECHR
Q: So you believe in the ECHR. How many pages are there in this case?
A: It is a very big case. When you go to the European Court, you cannot send all documents in one file. You have to fill in the form for every family member. So, it was a really big case because we had to file a hundred complains on behalf of a hundred family members. So, each complaint is more than a thousand pages. So, we had to do that a hundred times. So, it's more than 100,000 pages. That is, we had to file a separate application for everyone, and then they were merged into one file.
Q: Was this claim accepted for consideration?
A: We are waiting what the European Court does now. It has to act in accordance with accepted norms: when you complain about a country, you have to complain in that country itself. So, in this case, we had to go to Russia to complain about Russia. What we argued in the case is that it's not the efficient way to complain because the way Russia acted is not according to international standards. Russia only said: "We didn't do anything, there is no evidence, we do not have any responsibility." As I said before they had spread information that was not really true.
So, what the European Court decides now is the question whether we can complain directly at the European Court. The European Court has already informed us that they have accepted the complaint. I think It will take about a year, or maybe a year and a half, before we know that ruling.
If the court says that we can complain directly at the European Court, then the trial will start. In that case, the Russian Federation will have to answer the complaint. What we are hoping for is that at least the family members will get answers to the questions they have, about what exactly happened, who was responsible for the Buk, who was in charge of separatists.
Q: When can the trial start?
A: For us it has already started. We filed the application at the end of November. So, since then we have been waiting for this date. So, we do not know. This is a long way. The time you have to wait until the European Court issues a ruling on the case is five to seven years. So, to be honest, we do not know.
There is also a possibility that the European Court says: "No, it's not allowed to complain directly at the European Court, you have to go to Russia first."
This is a unique case. This has never happened before. Fortunately, this has never happened. But for everybody it is a tense situation to see what the European Court will do.
Q: Tell us about compensation in the ECHR.
A: Compensation is a small part of why you go to the European Court. You cannot ask for money. You first have to ask the European Court to confirm that a country has violated human rights. And when they confirm that, the European Court can say that they have to pay compensation. But we don't know how much that is, how high that is. Only the European Court can decide that.
JUDGMENT DAY IN THE SCHIPHOL COMPLEX
Q: It is known that an independent litigation in the MH17 case will take place at the Schiphol complex, about 50 kilometers from The Hague. When will the litigation begin?
A: My feeling says somewhere this year maybe at the end of this year, maybe the beginning of the next year.
That is going to be interesting because under the Dutch law, a suspect's presence is not mandatory. He can be convicted when he is not even in the court. So, that is going to be a thing because all the family members want to see the people who did this. They want to face them and they want to talk to them.
So, it is going to be something [high-profile] and we don't know how it goes.
Q: Schiphol is not only a judicial complex. There's also a prison there.
A: Yes, there is a very big prison in this Schiphol complex. And it is very well protected. I think it is very important as well.
Q: What new facts of the tragedy are known to the investigation?
A: The only party that gives some new information is Bellingcat but the real authority is the Joint Investigation Team and they do not tell anybody anything. What they know has already been shared with the public but they know a lot more. And they will share their information when the proceeding starts. We know that the Netherlands is negotiating with Russia. There are many questions unanswered.
FOUR YEARS IN MH17 CASE
Q: What does the MH17 case mean to you, not as a lawyer? Is it true that you lost a friend aboard the Boeing?
A: I knew a person who was on board. I have a brother, and his friend and colleague was on board MH17. I also knew him. That's right, that's true.
The Netherlands is a tiny country with a population of only 17 million people. So, everybody knows who was on board MH17. It was the biggest disaster in our history. And to act for people who suffered is a matter of honor. I feel honored that I can represent them together with my office. But it was tough.
I have been busy with this case for almost four years now. Every day I speak with somebody on the MH17 case. I've seen a lot of tears. I've seen a lot of grief. People are still grieving. People are still waiting for body parts. There are even families who did not receive anything. They are still waiting for body parts. They want to know the truth and put together this puzzle. They want to find those responsible. So, they came to us.
The clients asked us: "At least try. We want to know what happened. We want to know how the puzzle looks like. Finish the puzzle for us." We are very motivated to do that for the people.
Iryna Drabok, The Hague