MH17 trial resumes briefly despite corona outbreak, more hearings in June

The high security courtroom. Photo: N. van der Pas
The high security courtroom. Photo: N. van der Pas

The MH17 trial was  briefly reopened on Monday for a series of procedural decisions made by the court during a nearly two-week-long recess since the trial opened on March 9.

Four suspects – three Russians and one Ukrainian – are charged with causing the crash of flight MH17, resulting in the death of all 298 persons on board, and of their murder.  The four are alleged to have cooperated to obtain and deploy the BUK missile at the firing location with the aim of shooting down the aircraft.

Presiding judge Hendrik Steenhuis read aloud the court’s answers to a number of requests from the prosecution, including which witnesses need to be reinterviewed and whether the judges will travel to the airbase in Gilze-Rijen where much of the wreckage is stored.

One of the requests put forward by lawyers for a large group of victims’ relatives was to view the entire case file, a demand rejected by the public prosecutor on security grounds. On Monday, the court said it would allow lawyers for the victims to see the case file, but not the family members themselves.

Concerns over leaks not only to the media but to the Russian government have been of major concern throughout the four-year-investigation into the disaster. The Russian government has denied involvement but the four men were all operating in a part of Ukraine that had been annexed by Russia on behalf of pro-Russian forces.

The hearing went forward at the high security courthouse near Schiphol airport despite country-wide measures to restrict the spread of COVID-19. Rather than a courtroom filled with press and victims’ families, only three judges, one public prosecutor and one defense lawyer were present.

‘If today’s hearing did not take place, that would have consequences for the hearings in June,’ Steenhuis said, referring to the next scheduled block of hearings when defense lawyers for Oleg Pulatov will address the court.

Pulatov is the only suspect to have retained counsel. The other three men, Igor Girkin, Sergei Dubinsky and Leonid Kharchenko, are being tried in absentia without legal representation.

The court also requested more information from the prosecution, including a further explanation as to what could be gained by having the court travel to the airbase in Gilze-Rijen, where much of the wreckage is stored, to view the fuselage.

A number of other decisions were postponed until the trial resumes in June to allow Pulatov’s defense team time to respond. ‘The court understands that Mr Pulatov’s lawyers have not yet had time to work their way through all of the procedural documents,’ Steenhuis said.

MH17 took off from Schiphol airport on  July 17, 2014, en route to Kuala Lumpur and was shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing everyone on board. Most of the victims were Dutch.

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