Ukraine releases separatist air-defense commander suspected of being ‘important eyewitness’ to downing of MH17
A court in Kyiv has released Vladimir Tsemakh on his own recognizance. Tsemakh was arrested in June inside the self-declared People’s Republic of Donetsk and then transferred to Kyiv. His daughter, Maria, confirmed to the news agency Interfax that she learned from his lawyer that her father has left the courthouse.
Ukrainian officials accuse Tsemakh of creating a terrorist group. The investigative website Bellingcat calls him “an important eyewitness” to the July 2014 downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17. In documentary film footage from 2015, Tsemakh says he commanded separatist operations south of the city of Snizhne in the summer of 2014, where MH17 was shot down. Tsemakh says he was responsible for hiding a certain object (in the filmed interview, the word is bleeped out, as he laughs and recalls the incident). Bellingcat argues that the censored word was “Buk” — referring to the Buk missile system used to shoot down MH17.
Tsemakh’s daughter previously stated that her father commanded an air defense unit in Snizhne, but she says he only started in October 2014. After his arrest, she told the BBC Russian Service that “he’s being framed for MH17,” in which she insists he wasn’t involved. “He wasn’t a key figure,” Maria Tsemakh told journalists.
To capture Vladimir Tsemakh, Ukrainian officials carried out a special operation inside the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic. On June 27, 2019, he was arrested at his apartment in Snizhne, and then transferred across the so-called “contact line,” into Ukrainian territory controlled by Kyiv. Tsemakh’s wife says she returned home to find signs of a struggle, including traces of blood. Friends and family spent the next day looking for him, and on the evening of June 28, the family received a letter from a lawyer in Kyiv, informing them that Tsemakh was being placed under arrest.
Dutch investigators reviewing the downing of MH17 planned to question Tsemakh as a “person of interest,” according to Associated Press journalist Mike Corder. Brechtje van de Moosdijk, a spokesperson for the Dutch Joint Investigation Team, said the Dutch public prosecutor wanted Tsemakh to remain in Ukraine for further questioning. The Associated Press also cited unconfirmed reports that Tsemakh is on the list of prisoners that will be exchanged soon with Russia. Moosdijk warned The Associated Press that Dutch officials won’t likely be able to speak to Tsemakh, if he's swapped and sent to Russia.
The investigative website The Insider previously reported that Tsemakh could be included in the prisoner swap expected between Russia and Ukraine. Sources told the website that Moscow has threatened to cancel the entire prisoner exchange, if Tsemakh isn’t part of the trade. Ukrainian journalist and military expert Yuriy Butusov has also claimed that the Kremlin is delaying the swap because it wants Kyiv to hand over Tsemakh. This information hasn’t been verified officially, however.
Hours after Tsemakh’s release from jail in Kyiv, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that negotiations with Ukraine on a “large-scale” prisoner exchange are nearly complete.
Translation by Kevin Rothrock