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 is due to start 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, 198 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.
That is not clear. 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.
That depends on how the suspects choose to conduct their defense. If they have appointed lawyers, the trial may proceed with or without the suspects present. If they do not turn up and have not appointed lawyers, under Dutch law they can be tried in absentia and judges would appoint a lawyer to safeguard their interests.
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.
The court has set aside two weeks in the first round of hearings for prosecutors to outline progress in their investigation and to check whether additional evidence or witness interviews are needed, and to address other procedural issues. The court will then either set a date for further hearings or schedule opening statements, likely not until late this year.
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 and Stephanie van den Berg; Editing by Janet Lawrence