AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - The first hearing in the criminal trial of four men accused of murder for their roles in the 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in Ukraine began in the Netherlands on Monday:
MH17 was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur on July 17 2014 over an area where Ukrainian government forces were fighting Russian-backed rebels. Prosecutors say the plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile fired from rebel-held territory. All 298 passengers and crew were killed, 196 of them Dutch citizens. The Netherlands and Australia have said they hold Russia responsible as it supplied the missile system used to shoot down the plane. Moscow denies involvement.
In August 2014, the Netherlands, Ukraine, Malaysia, Australia and Belgium set up a joint team to investigate possible criminal wrongdoing in the plane’s downing. In 2017 the countries agreed that prosecutions would take place in the Netherlands under Dutch law.
Prosecutors say the missile system that brought down the plane came from the Russian 53rd Anti-Aircraft Brigade, based in the Russian city of Kursk. Moscow denies this. The suspects are charged with “causing flight MH17 to crash, with the death of all aboard” and with the murder of 298 people.
In June 2019 prosecutors named a first group of suspects: Russians Sergey Dubinsky, Oleg Pulatov and Igor Girkin, and Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko. Prosecutors have identified them as having participated in arranging and delivering the missile system that brought down the plane.
Not the suspects. Although the Netherlands has issued an international arrest warrant for the four, believed to be in Russia, Russia will not cooperate with the court or extradite its subjects. Lawyers for Oleg Pulatov, as well as a Russian law expert and translator, were present at the start of the hearing. Other defendants chairs were empty. Victims’ representatives are expected to attend.
That depends on how the suspects choose to conduct their defence. Pulatov’s lawyers have yet to speak. If the other suspects do not turn up and have not appointed lawyers, under Dutch law they can be tried in absentia. Judges would appoint a lawyer to safeguard their interests.
The charges carry a sentence of up to life in prison. If the suspects are convicted and sentenced in absentia, without participating in the trial, they would have the chance for a retrial if they ever came into Dutch custody.
At the start of Monday’s hearing Judge Hendrik Steenhuis said the initial two weeks of the process would be devoted to “taking stock” of the status of defendants and whether they have lawyers. Are prosecutors ready to present their case or is further investigation needed?
The hearings are taking place at the Hague District Court, with sessions located at a high security courthouse next to Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport.
Reporting by Toby Sterling; Editing by Janet Lawrence