June 8, 2020 / 9:09 AM / 2 months ago

Defence wants more time in Dutch MH17 trial after Covid-19 delays

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Defence lawyers on Monday insisted they needed more time to prepare at the trial of suspects in the downing of a Malaysia Airlines flight over eastern Ukraine, as proceedings resumed after a coronavirus lockdown was eased in the Netherlands.

A protest sign stands in front of a row of chairs as family members of victims of the MH17 crash lined up empty chairs for each seat on the plane during a protest outside the Russian Embassy in The Hague, Netherlands March 8, 2020. REUTERS/Piroschka van de Wouw

Hearings resumed Monday with extra social distancing measures in place including glass panels separating the judges and lawyers and family members spread out through the courtroom.

Four defendants went on trial in March over the downing of flight MH17, which killed all 298 aboard, after nearly six years of research by international investigators.

Investigators say the missile launcher used to hit the jet came from a Russian army base just across the border. They add that pro-Russian forces had frequently been in contact with government officials in Moscow before the July 17, 2014 strike.

The Netherlands, home to most of the victims, holds Russia responsible, but the Kremlin has consistently denied involvement.

The defendants - Russians Sergey Dubinsky, Oleg Pulatov and Igor Girkin and Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko - remain at large. Pulatov is the only one who has appointed a defence team, with the others being tried in absentia.

Pulatov’s defence said the coronavirus travel restrictions made it impossible to meet their client and prepare a proper defence. They said they had only spoken with Pulatov “superficially through intermediaries” since the lockdown in March.

Prosecutors said it was possible Pulatov refused extensive contact with his lawyers, which should not impact the trial’s timetable.

“The prosecution says Pulatov chose to limit contact, but that was not Pulatov, that was the coronavirus,” said lawyer Sabine ten Doesschate.

MH17 was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it was shot down by a missile fired from territory held by pro-Moscow rebels amid fighting with Ukrainian troops.

The suspects all held senior posts in pro-Russian militias in eastern Ukraine in 2014, according to prosecutors. They face preliminary charges of murder and of causing an aircraft to crash.

The prosecution will spend the rest of Monday detailing the investigation into the case so far.

Reporting by Stephanie van den Berg; Editing by Anthony Deutsch, William Maclean

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