Dutch prosecutors ask Ukraine not  to hand over new MH17 suspect to Russia

While President Zelensky is considering handing over to Russia Volodymyr Tsemakh, a former anti-aircraft unit chief with the Russian proxy forces in Donbas who was believed to be an important witness in the MH17 case, Dutch representative to the Joint Investigation Team (JIT), Fred Westerbeke, reported that Volodymyr Tsemakh is now a suspect in the investigation.

Dutch prosecutors have urgently appealed to Ukraine to prevent a new suspect in the MH17 investigation from being transferred to Russia as part of the massive exchange of held persons, NRC Handelsblad reported.

According to Westerbeke, it is "of paramount importance" that Volodymyr Tsemach "remains available" for "[further] interrogation."

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Russian and Ukrainian media earlier reported that Tsemakh has become an obstacle in a major swap of held persons Kyiv and Moscow have been negotiating for several weeks.

Tsemakh, who is a Ukrainian national, was the commander of the anti-aircraft unit in noon-government-controlled Snizhne, near the location from where the deadly Buk missile was launched on July 17, 2014. Last June he was snatched from the occupied territory by Ukrainian security services and has since remained in custody.

A video interview filmed in 2015 suggests that Tsemach could be involved in transporting the Buk launcher to Russia.

Read alsoUkraine's special operations forces detain "commander" involved in MH17 downing (Photo)

Tsemakh was described by the media as "crown witness" in the investigation. It now appears that chief officer Westerberke last Friday sent a letter to the Ukrainian Prosecutor General's Office Prosecution Service, noting that "on the basis of information that has recently become available", Dutch law enforcers regard Tsemach as a "suspect" in the MH17 case.

Westerbeke writes that he cannot yet share with his Ukrainian counterparts the information that became grounds for altering Tsemakh's status. The letter has been published on a Ukrainian news site, NRC has been able to establish its authenticity.

Last Friday came unconfirmed reports that the swap deal had been completed and that dozens of political prisoners and POWs held in Russia, including Ukrainian film director Oleh Sentsov, would arrive in Kyiv that day. However, a few hours later it appeared that the agreement had not been finalized. According to The Insider, the deal was called off at the last moment after Moscow suddenly demanded to include in the list Ukrainian national Volodymyr Tsemakh.

Read alsoSBU identifies over 150 persons involved in transporting Buk missile launcher from Russia to Donbas

It is not clear when prisoner exchange between Ukraine and Russia will pursue.

Ukraine's PGO has not yet responded to Westerbecke's letter, while a PGO official confirmed that Tsemakh could be "an important witness", at the same time adding that he was not detained in the context of the MH17 case but as part of the investigation into his participation in hostilities on the side of Russian occupation forces.

The Dutch judiciary has so far pressed charges against four suspects (three Russians and one Ukrainian) for the MH17 downing. The trial will start next March.

The highest-profile suspect is Igor Girkin aka "Strelkov", ex-commander or Russia proxy forces in Donbas. He is currently residing in Moscow, facing no prosecution in Russia.