A Kiev court has released a “key suspect” in the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 shortly before Vladimir Putin said prisoner swap negotiations with Ukraine were in their final stages, raising fears among European politicians that the man will be sent to Russia.
That would put him out of the reach of international investigators, as Russia doesn't typically extradite its citizens.
Vladimir Tsemakh, a former fighter for Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine who was captured and smuggled across the frontlines in June, was released from custody on his own recognisance on Thursday. He is slated to go on trial for terrorism in October but has not been fitted with an electronic tag.
Ukrainian nationalists later protested with road flares outside the court, calling it a “terrorist accomplice” and “branch of the FSB”.
Mr Tsemakh reportedly commanded anti-aircraft defences in the town of Snizhne when a Buk missile fired from the area brought down MH17 in July 2014, killing 298, including 10 Britons.
The Dutch-led joint investigative team has said the Russian military deployed the Buk launcher to eastern Ukraine, findings denied by Moscow, and charged three Russians and a Ukrainian with murder in June. Court proceedings are scheduled for March.
Discussing the downing of MH17 in a 2015 Russian nationalist video interview, Mr Tsemakh said that he “got that guy out” and “hid” something. Although the exact word was bleeped out, many believe that he was saying he had hid the “Buk” after the plane was shot down.
Rumours began appearing in recent weeks that Mr Tsemakh could be included in the prisoner exchange that Moscow and Kiev have been negotiating since Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy called Mr Putin in July.
A Russian newspaper quoted sources on Thursday as saying that Moscow demanded Mr Tsemakh in exchange for freeing Crimean director and Amnesty International prisoner of conscience Oleg Sentsov.
If true, that would be an unusual level of interest by Moscow in the fate of a foreign national, as Mr Tsemakh is a Ukrainian citizen, and suggest it does not want him to be questioned.
In a letter to Mr Zelenskiy on Wednesday, 40 MEPs including Catherine Rowett of the United Kingdom opposed Russia's alleged requests to trade for Mr Tsemakh, calling him a “key suspect” in the MH17 investigation who should testify in the case.
Dutch chief prosecutor Fred Westerbeke said in a leaked letter to his Ukrainian counterparts last week that Mr Tsemakh's status as a suspect meant that “keeping him available for (further) questioning by the joint investigation team is therefore of the utmost importance”.
A spokeswoman for the team told media on Thursday that it wanted him to remain in Ukraine, as it would be difficult to question him if he was sent to Russia.
The Ukrainian prosecutor general's office also objected to the release of Mr Tsemakh, whom it called “an important element of truth-seeking in this case”.
Mr Putin breathed new life into the prisoner exchange process on Thursday when he said at the eastern economic forum in Vladivostok that a “fairly large” swap was close to being agreed.
“We're approaching the finalisation of the negotiations that we are holding with the official authorities, among others,” he said. “I think this will become known in the near future.”
Ukrainian officials had said the trade of 33 prisoners from each side would happen last Friday, only to have Moscow dismiss this.
Among others, Kiev is hoping to bring home 24 sailors captured when their three navy vessels were seized in November trying to pass through the Kerch strait, which since the annexation of Crimea has been controlled by Russia.
Several Ukrainian prisoners in Russia have been moved from far-flung prison colonies to Moscow in recent weeks.
Mr Tsemakh's dramatic seizure in separatist territory by a grab team of Ukrainian agents who reportedly drugged him and smuggled him across the de facto border in a wheelchair was the first of its kind.
Some 13,000 people have been killed in the conflict in eastern Ukraine since 2014.