Judges vow to bring ‘clarity’ to MH17 crash victims’ families as trial moves into crucial phase

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Dutch judges said Monday they wanted relatives of victims to finally have “clarity” about the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine as the trial of four suspects entered a key phase.

Some relatives were in court for the start of a week in which judges will at last examine evidence against the three Russians and one Ukrainian who are on trial in absentia over the July 2014 disaster.

The trial formally began in March 2020 but has until now dealt with legal arguments, mainly about the admissibility of evidence in the crash in which all 298 passengers and crew on the Boeing 777 were killed.

“Up until today no one has come forward and said they are even partially responsible for the crash of MH17,” presiding judge Hendrik Steenhuis told the court.

Steenhuis said it was crucial for the evidence to be heard in open court despite the absence of Russian nationals Oleg Pulatov, Igor Girkin and Sergei Dubinsky, and Ukrainian citizen Leonid Kharchenko.

Only Pulatov has legal representation.

“The hearing being public is important to society in general, and to the relatives particularly, that there will be clarity about the result of the investigation after years of investigation,” the judge said.

‘Such a large case’  

Judges said the court will this week look at evidence about three key questions: whether the Boeing 777 was shot down by a Russian-made missile; the location the missile was fired from, and the role of the four suspects in the crash.

The idea that the plane had been downed by a BUK surface-to-air missile operated by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine was the “main scenario”, Steenhuis added, but they would also look at theories including that a plane had shot down MH17.

The court would be highlighting key parts of the evidence and not going over every part in court, he warned.

“The file consists of 65,000 pages, and many hundreds of hours of video and audio recordings. It’s such a large case it’s simply not possible to speak about every detail,” said the judge.

‘Judges focusing on role of the accused’

Reporting on the trial from Amsterdam, FRANCE 24’s Fernande van Tets said that in Dutch court cases “this is usually the moment where the people accused actually get to respond to the evidence, and get to be asked questions, but of course this is not possible in this case because none of the accused are here”.

Van Tets said the reason why the judges had decided to lay out the details of the evidence anyway was “because of the interest to the public and of course the relatives of the people that died”.

“They are hoping to find out how their loved ones died,” she said.

“The court said they are focusing on the role of these four men, so: Did this plane get hit by a BUK missile? And was that missile fired from a particular field in eastern Ukraine where these men were active as separatists? And what were their roles in the downing of that plane?”

The prosecution and defence will have the chance to raise issues during hearings lasting until July 9.

Relatives of the victims will be able to address the court in September.

The jet was travelling from Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport to Kuala Lumpur when it was shot down over part of eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian rebels.

An international investigation concluded that a BUK missile that had originally come from the Russian army’s 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade based in the city of Kursk was responsible.

Secure courtroom

All four suspects are accused of being key figures among the separatist rebels battling Kiev.

Girkin, also known by his pseudonym “Strelkov”, is a former Russian spy and historical re-enactment fan who helped kickstart the war in Ukraine.

Dubinsky, who has also been tied to Russian intelligence, allegedly served as the separatists’ military intelligence chief while Pulatov was an ex-Russian special forces soldier and one of Dubinsky’s deputies.

Kharchenko allegedly led a separatist unit in eastern Ukraine.

Pulatov said in a video played to the court in November that he had seen no sign of any missile.

The trial is being held in the Netherlands, in a secure courtroom near Schiphol airport, because it was the point of departure for the doomed plane and because 196 of the victims were Dutch.

The judges visited the reconstructed, shrapnel-pierced wreckage at a Dutch airbase for the first time in May in what they described as an “emotionally loaded” day.

(FRANCE 24 and AFP)


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