Western governments knew the dangers of flying over eastern Ukraine before Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 crashed but did nothing about it, German investigative journalists say.
Correctiv, which describes itself as the first non-profit German-language investigative newsroom, has won a partial court victory in its quest to find out what governments knew before the tragedy.
The Administrative Court in Berlin this week partly upheld Correctiv’s right to know and ordered the German foreign office to disclose facts the office had withheld.
Ukrainian officials told ambassadors of Western countries at a July 14 briefing last year that Russian tank units had intervened in the conflict. As a result, the Ukrainians said, there had been a dramatic escalation in air combat, according to Schraven’s report.
A few hours before the briefing a Ukrainian military plane flying at 6200 meters had been shot down over eastern Ukraine. Only Russian missiles or the Russian air force could be responsible, his report cites the Ukrainians as saying. The separatists would not have had appropriate military equipment.
Three days later flight MH17 plunged to the ground, killing all 298 on board – including 39 people who called Australia home.
But the doomed flight was one of hundreds that crossed the crisis zone that week, with Russian Aeroflot, Singapore Airlines and Ukrainian International Airlines having the most flights. Some airlines, including Qantas, British Airways, Air France and Polish airline LOT, had avoided it for some time. Changing course would result in longer flying times and increase airlines’ fuel costs.
The German foreign office has said that civilian flights over eastern Ukraine and their safety were not discussed at the July 14 briefing.
However, Correctiv says it has a copy of a report on the briefing by Dutch diplomat Gerrie Willems that contradicts the office’s claim.
Presented in German by Correctiv, the Willems report says the briefing was attended by staff of the embassies of the European Union member states, the United States, Canada, Brazil and Japan.
Although there is no specific mention of civil aviation, the Willems’ report refers to the escalation in aerial combat.
“This escalation meant automatically that civil aviation was at risk.
“According to our investigation, the German ambassador to Ukraine, Christof Weil, passed this information on to the foreign office,” Schraven wrote.
Correctiv printed a photograph it said was from the Ukrainian President’s website that shows Mr Weil at the July 14 briefing.
The German foreign office had refused to release information about the briefing, arguing it had been confidential and that all those attending had acknowledged this.
Correctiv responded by saying that the Ukrainian President’s website had published information from the meeting on July 15.
The Administrative Court of Berlin has now ordered the foreign office to tell Correctiv whether Mr Weil did write a report on the briefing and when the office told the Chancellor’s Office and the German Defence Ministry about the content of the Weil report.
In addition, the office must reveal when German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was told about the escalation of the war.
“We want to know why thousands of people were at risk and why no warning was issued,” Schraven wrote.
“Because that was the duty of the foreign office: to warn the airlines and through them all travellers of the dangers over eastern Ukraine.”