THE HAGUE (CN) — Flight MH17 pushed back from the gate 13 minutes after its scheduled departure time. The Malaysia Airlines trip was overbooked, and several passengers arrived to gate G3 at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport late, delayed by earlier flights that landed behind schedule.
It was a warm, sunny Thursday afternoon that July 17, 2014. Of the 298 people on board the Boeing 777, more than two-thirds of the passengers — 193 people — were Dutch. Many had be heading to a summer vacation, but none would reach their destination.
Three hours into the flight, as the plane was flying over eastern Ukraine, the aircraft disappeared from radar. The 15 members of the crew stopped responding to radio calls. And people living on the ground below began to see wreckage fall from the sky.
More than two years ago, before a silent courtroom, a prosecutor read the names of all 298 victims during the opening of a trial against four men charged with downing the plane. It took 19 minutes. This week, nearly a decade after the tragedy, The Hague District Court will render a verdict.
“The next of kin have been waiting eight years for this,” Piet Ploeg, who lost his brother, sister-in-law and nephew, said in an interview. Ploeg is also the chair of the MH17 Disaster Foundation, which has advocated for the relatives of those who died during the investigation and trial.
Relatives of the victims lobbied hard for a trial, rather than seeing the result of the investigation as the final step or accepting a parliamentary inquiry. “It is for us for important that an impartial court gives us a verdict,” Ploeg said.
The effort made by the Dutch legal system for the proceedings has been enormous. The case file runs more than 70,000 pages — the largest in Dutch history.
The Hague District Court has decamped to the Judicial Complex Schiphol, a high-security facility located 2.5 minutes from the airport where MH17 departed. The courtroom is too small to accommodate the interest, however, and so the court constructed a media center nearby to house the hundreds of journalists from around the world who have covered the story.
To bring the proceedings to families scattered across the globe, the entire trial has been live-streamed. Several hundred plan to attend the reading of the verdict in person, including around 90 who will travel from abroad. In an effort to accommodate the international audience, the trial has been simultaneously translated into English.
'Ordinary Dutch legal system'
Five years after the crash, in June 2019, the Dutch Public Prosecution Service announced it would indict three Russian men — Igor Girkin, Sergei Dubinsky and Oleg Pulatov — and one Ukraine man, Leonid Kharchenko, for the deaths of everyone on board MH17.
They are charged with murder — though the judges could ultimately convict on the lesser charge of manslaughter — as well as shooting down a passenger aircraft.
Prosecutors say the four men supplied a Russian-made Buk surface-to-air missile system to Russian-backed separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine, arranging transport from a Russian military unit over the border. “We are the first international victims of Russia’s war,” Ploeg told Courthouse News.
Girkin, the highest-ranking defendant, was a former colonel in Russia's intelligence service, the FSB. At the time, he was serving as the minister of defense for the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, the breakaway Ukrainian state where the disaster occurred. Both Dubinsky and Pulatov had previously worked for the GRU, Russia's military intelligence agency. Dubinsky was acting as the DPR's intelligence chief with Pulatov serving as his deputy. Kharchenko, the lone Ukrainian, had no previous military experience but was commanding a rebel group during the conflict.