This article is published in Blauw April 2018  – the internal magazine of the Dutch National Police

'This MH17 investigation grabs you by the throat' 

During his forty-year career, chief inspector Gerrit Thiry (60) worked all over the world and headed various notorious investigations, including murders. But nothing compares to the complexity and pressure of the investigation he's been working on for over three years now: the downing of flight MH17.

Text Erik van der Veen photography Harro Meijen 

Photo: chief inspector Gerrit Thiry ( photographer Harro Meijnen)

‘We make ourselves extremely vulnerable by letting others take a look behind the scenes and asking for feedback’

On 20 July 2014 - three days after the attack - Gerrit Thiry was asked to become coordinating team leader of the MH17 investigation. 'I enthusiastically said yes straight away, without thinking about what I was letting myself in for. On the other hand, it is of course a privilege. This investigation grabs you by the throat and doesn't let go'. At the same time, an investigation of this magnitude takes its toll after three years. 'I've had to make huge sacrifices socially. I haven't had a weekend off and I've lost a lot of weight. But I'm really glad that I can do this; the goal is to obtain an independent court ruling. Together with the Public Prosecution Service we're doing everything we can to achieve that. The best thing would be for someone to be in the dock, but a judgment can also be pronounced in default of appearance. I'm sure that's what will happen. And then we'll have to make sure that it takes place before I retire'. What does such a major investigation entail? Thiry gives eight pointers.

Use the playing field model for an information reservoir

The head of the national criminal investigation, Wilbert Paulissen, is the person I report to. I'm in charge of the day-to-day management of the investigation team, together with three public prosecutors. At first there was a huge amount of information. It was partly for this reason that we chose the playing field model. That involves identifying the ideal team composition with the right specialists to achieve the goal in a complex or large-scale investigation as efficiently and effectively as possible. We also divided the investigation into a number of subprojects and put representatives in the field of Information, Expertise, Analysis and Tactics around the table so that we could change gear more quickly. That worked very well. I regularly consult with Wilbert and the head of the Dutch National Police Information Unit (DLIO) to discuss results achieved so far. We formulate new ambitions and determine how we can find the right people for them'.

Involve as many specialists as possible

'The unique aspect of this investigation is that so many specialists are involved. The units lend us all possible cooperation. Twenty Russian and Ukrainian-speaking colleagues came forward. A number of them are still helping us to unlock the tap conversations and messages on social media. To me, that's a good example of the added value of a single police force. A tip for colleagues: if there's ever an attack, make sure you quickly bring together expertise in the field of information, analysis and tactics.'

Count on a long-term investigation

‘On the basis of photographs, videos and tap conversations, we’ve been able to establish that the BUK system that was used to down MH17 originated from and returned to Russia. Now we're focusing on the individual criminal liability of those involved. I think we'll be working on this case for at least another five years. It's sometimes difficult for the team to maintain its focus on this one investigation all the time. Detectives are used to more dynamism. We work together in the JIT (Joint Investigation Team, ed.), an investigation team with colleagues from Belgium, Ukraine, Malaysia and Australia. We form a single front. It now consists of 55 people and a number of colleagues work in the field office in Kiev. They listen to telecom messages and analyse them.'

Be resourceful

The legislation of the country in which an event occurs takes precedence. In Ukraine, for example, a Ukrainian police officer must always be present when witnesses are questioned. If a witness prefers not to go along with this, we devise a different way. We may take that person to the Netherlands, for instance. We do everything as safely and transparently as possible. An often-heard statement in the team is: we already have 298 victims to mourn, so let's not put any witnesses in danger. This investigation doesn't compare with any other. Normally, you can always get to a crime scene. But we've never been to Eastern Ukraine because it's still a war zone and the Netherlands doesn't recognise the republic proclaimed there. Another special aspect of the investigation: we've performed three tests with a BUK rocket in Finland. In a prepared test environment, forensic experts from the JIT countries detonated a warhead and a complete missile in order to measure certain angles and speeds of the explosion. It is, of course, an unusual and costly operation to detonate missiles, but it worked. We've also done two tests in Ukraine to be able to scientifically prove where the BUK was shot from. The main purpose of these tests was to calculate the trajectory of the missile and to compare the damage image with the traces found on the crash site.

Validate all information

'We've made some 80 international requests for mutual legal assistance. There's nothing to complain about when it comes to cooperation in this area. Russia has always given us answers, even though they weren't always exactly what we wanted and not always in the right format. We have to assess the value of everything we're given - testimonials, photographs, audio, etc. - on the basis of an independent source.'

‘The whole world is watching, and that creates another dimension.'

Stay transparent

The Netherlands has just one chance to get this investigation right. We're in the global media spotlight and can't afford to put any wrong information forward. Given the reactions to the international press conference of the JIT (on 28 September 2016, ed.), I think there's a fair amount of appreciation. There was a lot of pressure in the early days. Everyone was full of questions, and we didn't have all the answers. Things has now calmed down. I am myself responsible for most of the pressure I face these days. The whole world is watching, so that gives another dimension. All media statements are coordinated at the highest level. And the Security Council has adopted resolutions specifically on this investigation. That says it all. But there's no political steering. The relationship between the PPS and the investigation team is very good indeed. We're still making progress every week, so there's plenty to talk about. We'd prefer to let everyone know what we know ourselves, but ultimately the PPS presents the findings of the investigation in court. But we do inform the next of kin where possible.

Use the help of members of the public

We need a lot of information from members of the public. A great deal of information that you might need later as evidence is seen and shared via social media. I advise all colleagues to capture blogs, tweets, photos and the like with a screenshot immediately after an incident. Sometimes information is changed or deleted later and then you can't retrieve it. We don't give anyone instructions, but ask people to be careful with what they publish. The independent investigation collective Bellingcat in particular has made a lot of social media accessible, although of course we don't include this information in our investigation without carefully assessing it. If they've found photos or links, we secure them after an investigation. A few months ago we published a new photo of the BUK system. We had the coordinates in no time. Shortly afterwards, members of the pubic emailed photos from that particular spot. Of course, we ourselves also monitor social media. We investigate alternative scenarios. If we can immediately disprove a scenario, we document it and explain why we aren't investing in it'.

Maintain calm in the investigation

'I don't maintain contact with the next of kin myself. This was a conscious choice of mine to keep a certain distance and to avoid saying something that could cause problems. I prefer to stay out of the limelight and avoid too much distraction. Fortunately, we are very calm and confident about the investigation. It's progressing slowly, but there are reasons for that. We're dealing with an enormous amount of information, a language barrier, and an inaccessible area. Of course we also have a lot of peripheral issues to deal with. By responding immediately, we try to avoid unrest. That does generate a lot of extra work. You have to constantly look ahead and anticipate. What you really want to avoid is for your own organisation or the next of kin to be taken by surprise by new information. We keep a very close eye on that. And we always consider whether to inform the next of kin. We don't want to upset people without good cause.'

Include opportunities for reflection

There are undoubtedly things we could have done better. We make ourselves extremely vulnerable by letting others take a look behind the scenes and asking for feedback. We had twelve colleagues provide opposition, but that didn't work well because of the magnitude of the investigation. That is why we opted for critical peer readers. The Public Prosecution Service has organised a number of reflection rooms with external officers and police experts. External parties check whether we have our big data in order and we have the Police Quality Agency regularly check that we are recording all the findings properly. I want to avoid my successor not being able to find things if I ever leave before prosecution has started. That's a matter of honour to me. Apart from ensuring that the prosecution can be started up, I think it's very important that the next of kin find out exactly what happened and who was responsible for it'.

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