MH17 Trial: Bellingcat Discredits Defence Team and Witnesses

© Sputnik / Alexey Vitvitsky / Go to the mediabankMH17 trial
MH17 trial - Sputnik International
For six years now, the British website Bellingcat has been peddling Ukraine's assertion that 'Russia shot down flight MH17'. With the start of the MH17 trial in March 2020 the self-proclaimed 'collective of researchers, investigators and citizen journalists' assumed a new role. They began ridiculing the defence attorneys and discrediting witnesses.

In March 2020 the Dutch Public Prosecution Service (OM) opened criminal proceedings in The Netherlands against suspects in the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17. The Malaysian Boeing crashed on 17 July 2014, in the eastern region of Ukraine where a civil war was raging at the time, and where at least 16 planes belonging to the Ukrainian Air Force had already shot down by pro-indepndence militiamen. Four former military leaders of the breakaway People's Republic of Donetsk are now accused of having arranged the shooting down of the civilian airplane. OM considers these men 

"leading players who took delivery of a Buk-TELAR [anti-aircraft battery] from the Russian Federation and deployed it as part of their own military operation, with the aim of shooting down an aircraft.” 
Peter Langstraat, lawyer representing victims' families, talks to the media after a Dutch court opened the criminal trial against four suspects in the July 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, in Badhoevedorp, Netherlands March 9, 2020. REUTERS/Piroschka Van De Wouw - Sputnik International
Day One of MH17 Hearings: Tight Security in Place, Accusations of 'Show-Trial' From Sceptics

Fighter jets witness scammed

For years, Bellingcat staff have ridiculed anyone who disbelieves that MH17 was downed by a Russian Buk-TELAR or who claims to have seen Ukrainian fighter jets operating in the area of eastern Ukraine at the time MH17 crashed. The defence lawyers of Oleg Pulatov, one of the four accused men, want some fighter jet witnesses to testify in court. This has triggered an aggressive reaction from Bellingcat and its founder, Eliot Higgins, has taken to Twitter to pump out attacks, branding the lawyers a bunch of clowns, “a total car crash... recycling further nonsense”, and accusing them of calling long-dead witnesses, spending their time googling "MH17 Ukraine did it", etc.

​Christo Grozev, supposedly Bellingcat’s "lead Russia investigator", has led the charge against the MH17 defence team. In an article entitled "Crisis Actors as Defense Strategy" Grozev ridiculed the lawyers for seeking to place witnesses on the stand whom he portrayed as unreliable. According to Grozev, one of the witnesses has long since withdrawn his testimony about fighter planes. 

"In a DM chat and on the record" the witness is said to have told Bellingcat: "I never saw any fighter jet, or any other plane, on 17 July 2014." 

However, Bellingcat has not provided any evidence that the witness ever made this claim. In fact, it appears to be a lie. 

Russian journalist Yana Yerlashova from Bonanza Media visited the witness, known as Artyom, in his home town. In Yerlashova’s video report, "Bellingcat Scams MH17 Warplane Witness", Artyom stated adamantly that he had never withdrawn his testimony. 

He also maintained that he had never consented to an interview with someone from Bellingcat. In fact, Artyom had been approached online by an individual claiming to be a journalist - although he never claimed to work for Bellingcat. Artyom showed screenshots of the chat to Yerlashova. In this chat, there is no sign of the quote Grozev attributed to Artyom. 

The images of the chat Artyom gave to Yerlashova show that the mysterious journalist identified himself as Pieter Huis. There is indeed a Dutchman working at Bellingcat called Pieter van Huis. But had he been talking to Artyom? I asked him. He denied it. 

​Oddly, it turned out that Grozev, the author of the Bellingcat article, was the one who had spoken to Artyom. But, according to Higgins, Grozev hadn't done so under the name 'Peter' or 'Peter Huis'. So Higgins suggested the video interview of Yerlashova with Artyom was fabricated by the Russian military intelligence service GRU. 

By Higgins’ logic, the chat that Artyom showed to Yerlashova was fake and the witness had been put under pressure to pretend it was genuine. The Bellingcat founder has provided no evidence to support the highly unlikely scenario he conjured. 

I have asked Higgins several times to reveal the 'real chat' that Grozev is said to have conducted with Artyom, but he ignored my request.

​Attack on private detective

On 5 November 2020, the MH17 defence lawyers requested permission from the MH17 court to interview Dutch private investigator and electric bicycle dealer Max van der Werff about the research he conducted in eastern Ukraine. Van der Werff said he has spoken to dozens of people in Pervomayskyi, the village near the field from which the fatal Buk missile is supposed to have been fired. None of the residents would have seen the plume of smoke visible in a photo that was promoted by the Ukrainian secret service SBU as the trail of a missile launch.

Van der Werff was also the first to enter the apartment from which the smoke plume photo was allegedly taken. He went on to investigate the route that the low-loader with the Buk Telar battery would have travelled. 

The Joint Investigation Team (JIT), which has been conducting the criminal investigation, interviewed Van der Werff twice for several hours about his findings. His research also resulted in his name being placed on a blacklist of Myrotvorets, a malicious ultranationalist website in Ukraine that targets journalists who criticise Kiev’s policies. Several reporters who were listed on the website have been murdered.

After years of volunteer blogging, Van der Werff entered into a partnership with Yana Yerlashova. Together, they produced a documentary called "MH17 - Call for Justice", which has received more than 343,000 views since it was released in 2019. Last year, they also published confidential documents from the JIT, including a report from the Dutch Military Intelligence and Security Service (MIVD), which revealed that the MIVD had spotted plenty of Ukrainian Buk installations in eastern Ukraine and not a single Russian installation.

Because it was impossible for Bellingcat to discredit Van der Werff on the basis of the well-researched content featured on his blog and in his documentary, Higgins opted to wage a campaign of disinformation. 

According to Higgins, Van der Werff claimed that MH17 was downed by a fighter plane and that the entire incident was a false flag. Yet Van der Werff never claimed anything of the sort. On the contrary, he has always emphasised that he does not rule out the possibility Russia was involved in the disaster. Van der Werff does something that Bellingcat and the Dutch mass media have failed to do: he questions the official narrative and is thus open to the possibility that alternative scenarios occurred. 

​In November 2020 Bellingcat opened a full-frontal attack on Bonanza Media which was indirectly aimed at Van der Werff as a former contributor. Its piece is entitled: "The GRU's MH17 Disinformation Operations Part 1: The Bonanza Media Project"

Bellingcat accused Bonanza’s owner, Yerlashova, of obtaining the confidential JIT documents she published on her website from the Russian military intelligence service known as GRU. It is indeed possible that these documents were obtained by a Russian intelligence agency. But like most journalists covering national security-related affairs, Yerlashova and Van der Werff have protected their sources by refusing to comment on their identities. It is common practice for journalists to publish information provided by security services. As long as the information is correct, no lives are put at stake and the journalist is not financially compensated by the source, this practice is ethical.

The Dutch Prosecution Service confirmed that the documents published by Bonanza Media are authentic. And so the headline of the Bellingcat article, warning of "disinformation" provides no evidence to support its claim. Indeed, not a single example is given in the article of disinformation in any of Bonanza Media's productions. 

Bellingcat's attack piece nevertheless triggered a wave of smears in mainstream Dutch media, mainly focused on Van der Werff. "Dutch MH17-blogger directed by Russian secret service," daily newspaper NRC headlined. "Van der Werff worked on the orders of the Russian military intelligence service GRU," wrote the Dutch weekly De Groene Amsterdammer. Most Dutch media outlets simply copied and pasted the slander of NRC and De Groene into their own coverage.

Van der Werff has insisted that he never received a penny from the GRU or Russian government. Bellingcat does not claim otherwise, nor does it allege that Van der Werff collaborated with them. Bellingcat confined itself to raising questions about Van der Werff and the GRU. NRC and De Groene falsely claimed that Bellingcat had actually proved collaboration between the two of them. 

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Van der Werff is now fair game. It is doubtful whether the MH17 court will still allow the defence to interview him.

He announced that he will start a series of lawsuits, starting with one against Bellingcat's key partner in Russia, dissident journalist Roman Dobrokhotov of the website The Insider. Dobrokhotov has claimed on Twitter that Van der Werff is paid by the GRU. Van der Werff responded by inviting Dobrokhotov to prove his inflammatory remarks in a Moscow court.

The MH17 trial resumes on 1 February 2021. The main phase of the criminal proceedings will start on 7 June 2021.

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