7 Mar 2020

Dutch trial over downing of flight MH17 to start without suspects

9:42 am on 7 March 2020

Four fugitive suspects go on trial in the Netherlands on Monday charged with the murder of 298 passengers and crew aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, shot down with a Russian-made missile over eastern Ukraine in July 2014.

(FILES) In this file photo taken on July 20, 2014 a piece of the wreckage of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 is pictured in a field near the village of Grabove, in the region of Donetsk on July 20, 2014. -

Wreckage of Flight MH17 a week after it crashed in eastern Ukraine in July 2014. Photo: AFP

Wreckage of the Boeing 777 fell into fields surrounding the Ukrainian village of Hrabove in territory held by pro-Russian separatists fighting Ukrainian government forces.

It was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it was hit by a surface-to-air missile. There were no survivors.

Arrest warrants were issued last year for three Russians and a Ukrainian identified by a Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team (JIT) which spent several years collecting evidence.

The four, Russians Sergey Dubinsky, Oleg Pulatov and Igor Girkin, and Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko, had senior positions in the pro-Russian militias in eastern Ukraine in 2014. The JIT said they had not pulled the trigger, but colluded to carry out the attack.

Former FSB colonel Igor Girkin (Strelkov), Sergei Dubinsky employed by Russia's GRU military intelligence agency, Oleg Pulatov former soldier of the Spetznaz GRU and Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko.

Former FSB colonel Igor Girkin (Strelkov), Sergei Dubinsky employed by Russia's GRU military intelligence agency, Oleg Pulatov former soldier of the Spetznaz GRU and Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko. Photo: AFP

Girkin, a vocal and battle-hardened Russian nationalist, was minister of defence in the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic (DNR) in Ukraine. Dubinsky, Pulatov and Kharchenko were members of the separatists' military intelligence unit.

The defendants are at large and are not expected to show up for the hearings at a high-security courtroom near Amsterdam's Schiphol airport where they will be prosecuted under Dutch law.

If they do not appear, or fail to send lawyers, the judges could rule that the trial be held in absentia.

Although the Netherlands has issued an international arrest warrant for the suspects, believed to be in Russia, Russia will not cooperate with the court or extradite its subjects. It is possible that the suspects have hired lawyers or intend to participate in the hearings by video link. Victims' representatives are expected to attend.

The defendants also face preliminary allegations of obtaining a missile launcher with the intent to bring down an aircraft.

Russia has consistently denied any involvement or providing financial or military support to pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine.

President Vladimir Putin's spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, said the Kremlin would wait to see how the trial panned out before commenting, but said Russia had always had doubts about the objectivity of the Dutch-led investigation.

Wreckage and debris at one of the crash sites of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17.

Debris from the crash site in eastern Ukraine. Photo: REUTERS

'Uncovering the truth'

"The court will conduct its work independently," Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told journalists in The Hague on Friday. "This is a very important step toward uncovering the truth and seeking justice for the victims and their survivors."

Rutte said the trial would most likely not be the end of the legal process because: "The investigation into the involvement of other individuals is ongoing."

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.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte at Schiphol Airport near Amsterdam.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte says the investigation into the crash is ongoing and other people may be charged over the tragedy. Photo: AFP

The aircraft's downing led to sanctions against Russia by the European Union. It also heightened tension between Russia and Western powers who blame it for the disaster, which killed 193 Dutch, 43 Malaysian and 27 Australian nationals, among others.

The largest criminal investigation in Dutch history painstakingly reconstructed events leading up to and on 17 July, 2014. Police and prosecutors examined tens of thousands of pieces of evidence, including videos, communication tapes, satellite imagery, photos and social media posts.

Among the evidence are images plotting the missile launcher's journey as it crossed into Ukraine ahead of the disaster. A reconstruction presented by prosecutors showed it returning to Russia a day later with one fewer missile.

Intercepts released in November by the JIT showed two of the suspects had been in contact with Vladislav Surkov, a Putin aide, and Sergey Aksyonov, a Russian-appointed leader in Russian-annexed Crimea, it said.

The communications between the DNR militant leaders and Russian government officials "raise questions about their possible involvement in the deployment of the (missile), which brought down flight MH17", the JIT said.

Two weeks have been scheduled for the initial proceedings, which could be largely procedural. The trial is expected to run through 2020 and maybe longer.

A woman lights a candle in front of the Embassy of the Netherlands in Kiev, Ukraine.

A woman lights a candle during a vigil outside the Dutch Embassy in Kiev, Ukraine, in July 2014. Photo: AFP

The JIT concluded in May 2018 that the missile launcher "that took down flight MH17 belonged to the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade of the Russian Federation". It was based at the Kursk military base, just across the Ukrainian border, it said.

The Russian Defence Ministry said at the time: "Not a single air defence missile launcher of the Russian Armed Forces has ever crossed the Russian-Ukrainian border."

What is the possible outcome?

Mass murder could 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 a chance for a retrial if they ever came into Dutch custody.

- Reuters

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