Since the start of the criminal investigation, the investigation team has regularly been confronted with what we call ‘side issues’, which are events that cost a lot of time and capacity of the team, but that do not directly contribute to truth finding. In this online magazine we will discuss two ‘side issues’: the seizure of items from journalist Spekkers and the threatening mail from a person calling himself Volf.
Seizure of items from the journalist
In the first week of January 2017, we were all unpleasantly surprised by the reports from freelance journalist Michel Spekkers on social media. Spekkers had been on the crash site and had wanted to take along some MH17 related items, possibly including human remains. The way in which he reported on these findings generally led to agitation and outrage and equally to anger and sorrow of the victims’ relatives.
The reports prompted the Dutch Prosecution Service (OM) and the leaders of the investigation team to contact the journalist."
Gerrit Thiry, team leader of the National Police: “We had made the arrangement that, once at Schiphol, he would voluntarily hand over the objects that he had found to us for further investigation. But this did not happen. One of Spekkers’ colleagues took a backpack from the luggage belt and wanted to pass customs. I saw this and alerted my colleagues. Together with the Military Police (MP) we stopped him. The luggage of both gentlemen was instantly searched in the office of the MP at Schiphol. It appears that indeed their luggage contained MH17 related items. After consultation with the OM, we seized all MH17 related items, including their telephones and laptops, since we wanted to study the video and audio recordings for possible relevant information.“
“Normally we carry out an investigation right away after seizure, but this time we could not do that. Since we were dealing with a journalist the seizure had to be approved by the examining judge. Spekkers relied on his press freedom and protection of sources. Fortunately, the examining judge ruled that the seizure was lawful, but in his decision the judge also gave an instruction on how we should deal with the seizure. In brief, this meant that we were allowed to view and listen to the recorded material in Ukraine in Spekkers’ presence. In addition we and Spekkers had to discuss the images and sound recordings he and his colleague had made of the seizure at Schiphol Airport. If we would not come to a mutual agreement, a second procedure would have to be initiated before the examining judge. Frequent consultation with Spekkers’ lawyer ultimately led to an agreement, so a second procedure was not necessary.”
Of course the investigation team examined the objects Spekkers had taken from the crash site. In addition, the footage was also examined. Thiry: “One of the objects Spekkers had taken along was a bone fragment from one of the passengers. This bone fragment was analysed through a special emergency procedure by the Dutch Forensic Institute (NFI). DNA analysis showed that it belonged to a passenger who had already been identified in 2014. Of course we contacted the family of the victim and informed them about this matter.
Two investigators spent almost a full day together with Spekkers to view all the images recorded by him. The images did not show any human remains. One of the case prosecutors also had a look at part of the images, but she did not see any human remains on the videos either. The reports made by Spekkers could not be confirmed either.”
Because of the reports, the discussion about whether or not initiating a new salvaging mission got a new impulse. The decision about a possible new salvaging mission however is not made by the police or the OM, but by the Ministry of Security and Justice (V&J) ) with the permission of the formal Ukrainian authorities. The investigation team does provide input for that decision.
The Minister of V&J decided not to organise a new salvaging mission and in a letter to Parliament dated 16 February last, the minister explained this decision. This letter was also posted on the private website for the relatives. The letter reiterated that the Dutch authorities had made arrangements with local contacts. It was agreed that if any human remains are found, or other MH17 related objects, these contacts will always get in touch with the Dutch Embassy who then, after consultation, will hand these items over to the Dutch authorities. Of course, the Ukrainian authorities have been informed about these arrangements. Recently, we contacted these local contacts again. They indicated that they had not found any other human remains.
Thiry: ”Spekkers’ intentions were probably good, but I guess that he did not sufficiently realise what his reports would bring about. He has caused a lot of unrest among the relatives and dealing with this issue has been very time consuming for us. That is very unfortunate.”
The events in January of this year resulted in further consultation between the police and the Dutch Association for Journalists (NVJ). The NVJ emphasized the importance of protection of sources for the work of a journalist. The police drew attention to the unrest that reports as such published by Spekkers bring about and to the importance of the careful handling of any human remains and MH17 related objects found at the crash site.