Tuesday 02 June 2020

Four men, accused of MH17 murders, go on trial in the Netherlands

The high security Schiphol court. Photo: N. van der Pas

The trial of four men for their role in the downing of flight MH17 with the death of all 298 people on board begins in at the high-security courtroom at Schiphol airport on Monday.

Nearly 500 journalists from around the world arrived at the Schiphol court complex, in spite of the COVID-19 outbreak, early on Monday morning to witness the first day of hearings. Parts of the hearing will be live-streamed, though due to Dutch courtroom regulations, not everything can be shown to the public.

Four suspects – three Russians and one Ukrainian – are charged with causing the crash of flight MH17, resulting in the death of all persons on board, and of their murder.  All four are said to have played key roles in the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ in eastern Ukraine, where the Buk missile which brought down the plane was fired.

The four are alleged to have cooperated to obtain and deploy the BUK missile at the firing location with the aim of shooting down an aircraft. Although they did not press the button themselves, this means ‘they can also be held jointly accountable for downing flight MH17’, the Dutch public prosecution department said last year, when it announced that court proceedings would start this month.

Dutch

Everyone on board flight MH17 was killed when it was struck by a missile on July 17, 2014, and crashed into fields in eastern Ukraine. Two-thirds of the passengers on the flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur were Dutch.

The official investigation concluded in 2016 that the plane was shot down from Ukrainian farmland by a BUK missile ‘controlled by pro-Russian fighters’. That conclusion has been disputed by Russia, which claims that Ukrainian fighters were responsible.

A number of families of the victims are expected to be present in the courtroom today. The families also staged a protest yesterday, placing 298 chairs – one for every passenger onboard – opposite the Russian embassy in The Hague. ‘We are having a protest against the lack of cooperation of the Russian state in the investigation of the downing of MH17,’ Piet Ploeg, who lost several family members in the tragedy, told news agency AP.

Investigation

The five countries involved in the investigation – Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, Ukraine and the Netherlands – on Sunday signed an extension to their cooperation agreement.

‘The prolongation ensures the investigation into the downing of MH17 continues unabated and in parallel with the trial of the four suspects,’ the Dutch public prosecution department said in a statement on Sunday.

‘Uncovering the truth is a very time consuming and methodical process,’ said team leader Digna van Boetzelaer. ‘Tomorrow [Monday] the Netherlands will begin the trial of the four suspects. However, this does not mean the investigation into those responsible has been finalised. For me the trial is an important step towards finding truth and accountability.’

Court

None of the suspects are expected to be in court. Supposedly, one of them, Oleg Pulatov, has hired legal representation, though that cannot be confirmed until the hearing opens at 10am. In the Netherlands, court cases can be heard without defendants and defence lawyers.

Monday’s session will be largely procedural and the actual hearings are not expected to start until the autumn, at the earliest. Some experts take the case will take several years. According to broadcaster NOS, the Dutch government has set aside €54m to fund the case up to 2023.

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