A Dutch judge described as “almost incomprehensible” the 2014 shooting down of a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine that killed all 298 passengers and crew on board, as the trial of three fugitive Russians and a Ukrainian began on Monday near Amsterdam.
None of the accused were present in the courtroom and all four are believed to be in Russia. Only one sent a defence lawyer.
Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was hit by a surface-to-air missile on July 17, 2014, while flying over territory held by pro-Moscow rebels fighting Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine. It had been en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.
Prosecutors say the suspects helped provide the Russian missile system that downed the plane. The four face preliminary charges of the murder of 298 people and of causing the aircraft to crash, resulting in the death of all aboard.
“Many people have long waited for this day,” presiding Judge Hendrik Steenhuis said in opening remarks. “This tragic loss of so many lives has touched many all over the world.
“The court wants to say it realises the impact of the loss of so many human lives and that the way it happened was almost incomprehensible.”
The defendants – Russians Sergey Dubinsky, Oleg Pulatov and Igor Girkin and Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko – held senior positions in the pro-Russian militias in eastern Ukraine in 2014.
“It is very important for us because nobody had expected there would be a trial at all,” said Anton Kotti, who lost three family members in the disaster. “We hope the judge gets so much evidence that he can only come to one conclusion: ‘guilty’.”
A Dutch-led international Joint Investigation (JIT) team spent years collecting evidence before issuing arrest warrants for the four suspects last year.
The judges’ first order of business on Monday was to verify whether the suspects had appointed lawyers to defend them and to lay out a timetable for the case to proceed.
If convicted, the four men could face sentences of up to life in prison. However, Russia does not extradite its citizens, and the Kremlin has questioned both the legitimacy of the international investigation and the independence of the court.
Countries participating in the investigation – Ukraine, the Netherlands, Australia, Malaysia and Belgium – agreed in 2017 to hold trials in the Netherlands under Dutch law after attempts to set up a U.N.-backed tribunal foundered over Russian opposition.
The aircraft’s downing led to sanctions against Russia by the European Union. It also heightened tension between Russia and Western countries who blame it for the disaster, which killed 196 Dutch, 43 Malaysian and 27 Australian nationals, among others.