Press conference, Adelaide

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Flight MH17 criminal trial verdict; Professor Sean Turnell; Myanmar.

Penny Wong, Foreign Minister: Thank you very much for coming this morning, particularly so early. So, there are two developments overnight I would like to update you and the Australian people on. First, overnight the District Court of the Hague delivered its verdicts in the Dutch national prosecution of four men accused of downing MH17. This is the longest trial in Dutch criminal history. It started nearly 1,000 days ago, and today it has delivered justice and delivered truth for the 298 people on board MH17, for the 38 people who called our country home and for their families. And I start by saying that my thoughts today are with those who lost a loved one – the families, friends and all those for whom grief remains, unfathomable grief. And I acknowledge how long you've waited for this truth to come out.

Two Russian nationals and a Ukrainian separatist have been found guilty of the murder of all those on board, and a third Russian defendant has been acquitted. The delivery of these verdicts is an important step in efforts to hold those responsible to account. It delivers the answers families have sought. It delivers confirmation that the Russian Federation have responsibility. Separatists had direction from Russia. Russia supplied weapons, training, money and the missile which downed the plane. We call on Russia to surrender those convicted so they may face the court's sentence for their heinous crime.

I want to commend the work of all those involved in this very long process in bringing these people to justice. I commend the work and professionalism of the joint investigation team officials, including the Australian Federation Police [Australian Federal Police] that have conducted rigorous investigations to support bringing those responsible to justice. And I thank them.

I thank the government of the Netherlands and my counterpart, Wopke Hoekstra, with whom I've engaged since I've become Foreign Minister, and thank the government of the Netherlands for their work in bringing this case.

Can I also thank Julie Bishop, who was our Foreign Minister at the time. I acknowledge Julie's work, her personal commitment to these issues and her tireless and effective advocacy on behalf of all Australians.

In relation to this, what I would say is that the world today knows that Igor Girkin, Sergey Dubinskiy and Leonid Kharchenko downed an aircraft and murdered 298 people on board and are now sentenced for life. And no amount of avoidance, obfuscation, disinformation by the Russian Federation can avoid that fact.

On happier news, I also want to confirm what I think all of you know overnight, that Professor Sean Turnell is on a plane home and will land in Melbourne this morning. His return will be an enormous relief to his wife, Ha Vu, and to all of his friends and supporters here in Australia and overseas.

His wife issued a statement this morning via my department, and I'll read it for you now: “I'm overwhelmed with joy of news that my beloved husband, Sean, is coming home. I'd like to take this opportunity to thank all those who have strongly advocated for and assisted to secure his release. I especially thank the Australian Government, in particular, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Foreign Minister and her office, the embassy in Yangon for their persistent efforts and support. After nearly 22 months apart our priority right now is to spend time together as a family, and we ask that the media respect our privacy during this very special time.”

Ha Vu has been a tower of strength through this ordeal, and I wish both she and Sean well for this reunion and time together, and I hope media are able to respect her privacy and his privacy. The Australian Government will continue to provide whatever consular support is required.

I spoke to Sean last night after he landed in Bangkok. He was in very good spirits. He told me the same story he told the Prime Minister about the tote bags delivering food from the embassy in Yangon and that he put the coat of arms up on the cell, at the front of the cell, and he said, you know, don't mess with the emu and the kangaroo.

I've said many times Professor Turnell's release has been my first priority in relation to Myanmar. And I want to take the opportunity to pay tribute to and to thank many people who have played a role advocating for his release both in the Australian government and among our regional partners. Can I particularly thank the members of ASEAN and the two country chairs over the period of his imprisonment – Brunei and Cambodia. I thank my friend Dato Erywan of Brunei for his advocacy. I thank Prak Sokhonn, the Foreign Minister of Cambodia, and Prime Minister Hun Sen with whom I engaged, who did advocate on Professor Turnell's part.

I appreciate the foreign spokesperson for the regime, for the Myanmar military regime, for engaging with me directly on this matter and on the arrangements made for his release.

I thank the staff of my department, your Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. I thank all those at the post, including the Ambassador. I thank consular staff and all those in Canberra for their consular support, for their support of Sean and for their engagement, advice and implementation of the strategy as it went forward. Sean said to me he never felt like he was alone, so that's a great thing. The Australian Government will continue to advocate for the release of the remaining political prisoners in Myanmar. I'm happy to take questions.

Journalist: In light of the MH17 decision, what action now can the Australian Government take to try and get justice for those families?

Foreign Minister: We know that consistent with Russia's abrogation of international law, Russia will inevitably refuse to extradite. These gentlemen are already on the Interpol list, so in terms of those international criminal arrangements, we have those already in place. You may be aware that there are a number of other proceedings that the Australian Government is still continuing to press alongside the Government of the Netherlands. One of those is the ICAO proceedings, which is the international council in relation to aviation [International Civil Aviation Organization]. The Australian–Dutch legal proceedings at the ICAO council are still ongoing. Russia is disputing jurisdiction, but we will continue to press for that.

Journalist: On Professor Turnell, what do you think motivated the sudden release?

Foreign Minister: Well, this is – I suppose first I'd say it wasn't sudden to some extent, but you're right; it moved very quickly when the decision was made. Obviously, the regime has made a decision in relation to many political prisoners, of which we were pleased Professor Turnell was one, to release a cohort of prisoners. We obviously also made a decision, or I made the decision to engage directly with the Myanmar military regime on these issues and I'm very, very grateful and pleased that Professor Turnell is on his way home.

Journalist: How would you describe the MH17 attack?

Foreign Minister: Heinous and horrific. And I've been on that flight and so have many Australians, and that someone – that these people could decide to down a civilian aircraft –

Journalist: So –

Foreign Minister: Hang on – with children in it is beyond words.

Journalist: Sorry to turn you back to Professor Turnell. I know you touched on his disposition. Can you please just run us through again how he's feeling?

Foreign Minister: He's in really great spirits. He was in great spirits. He thanked me. He thanked the people of Australia for their support. He thanked all of those at the post for their involvement, including Ambassador Angela Corcoran. He was really grateful for how much support – he said he never felt he was alone, which is a wonderful thing and such a testament to those who work at the post. He was looking forward to seeing Ha. He'd spoken to her already. He was in good spirits. He's obviously – we ensured he had a medical check when he landed, but he seemed in good spirits. I think he probably wants a haircut.

Journalist: The verdict for MH17 for the victims' families, is this somewhat of a hollow conclusion to this process?

Foreign Minister: Look, the truth is never hollow, and nothing will bring the people who were lost back but we can ensure that the world knows the truth and that legal responsibility is attributed and that is what has happened today. I hope – I know because I'm engaged with a number of the families of those lost that for many – I won't speak for all of them, but many have expressed to me how important it was for them to do this. Obviously, a number attended the verdict. Next of kin attended. And it is always important that we tell the truth for something as horrific as this.

Journalist: Once again, what's your appeal to Russia to give up these convicted criminals?

Foreign Minister: These people are murderers, and you should ensure that they face justice.

Journalist: Are you confident that justice can be delivered?

Foreign Minister: I am confident that we, along with our friends in the Netherlands, will do everything we do internationally, diplomatically, and legally to achieve justice. Today is an enormous step, but I also acknowledge that just as Russia has abrogated the UN Charter, Russia's refusal to comply with international law, to comply with the rule of law, means that there are barriers to these men facing justice. But we know who they are. The world knows who they are, and the families and friends of those who were murdered know who they are, and a court has found them guilty, and those things matter.

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