Defense Team in Plane-Crash Trial Points Finger at Ukraine

Doubting the conclusion that the jet was shot down by Ukrainian separatists using a surface-to-air missile, lawyers for one defendant argued at least three other scenarios are possible.

Sabine ten Doesschate, rear, and Boudewijn van Eijck, front, lawyers for defendant Oleg Pulatov, are seen at the MH17 trial near Amsterdam on June 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Robin van Lonkhuijsen, Pool)

AMSTERDAM (CN) — Defense lawyers in the Netherlands trial over the MH17 plane crash called the investigation into the downing of the passenger jet worrying and suggested it might have been manipulated by Ukraine. 

The Dutch defense team for one of the four men charged in the case wrapped up its requests Tuesday for further investigation into what happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, or MH17, as it flew over eastern Ukraine in 2014. 

“We must conclude that the [Joint Investigation Team’s] calculations must be based on false information and use a method without factual underpinnings,” said Sabine ten Doesschate, referring to the estimation of the location of a Buk-TELAR missile launcher when, according to the prosecution, it shot down the passenger airplane.  

A man walks among the debris at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 near the village of Hrabove, Ukraine, on July 17, 2014. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky, File)

Ten Doesschate is representing Oleg Pulatov, an ex-lieutenant colonel in the Russian armed forces who has been charged with 298 counts of murder before The Hague District Court. His co-defendants, two other Russian men – Igor Girkin and Sergei Dubinsky – and one Ukrainian man, Leonid Kharchenko, are all being tried in absentia. 

Hearings resumed on Monday, with the defense casting doubts on the prosecution’s stance that the only explanation for the tragedy was that the Boeing 737 was shot down while flying over separatist-held territory. Months before the tragedy, Russia annexed Crimea, a peninsula extending from Ukraine’s southern coast, following the overthrow of the pro-Russian government in the Eastern European country. Russia has strongly denied any involvement in the downing of MH17. 

The defense argued at least three other scenarios are possible: the plane was shot down by a Ukrainian fighter jet, it was shot by a Buk or another surface-to-air missile launcher by the Ukrainian military, or Ukraine used MH17 as a human shield. All of these scenarios have been backed at various points by the Kremlin. 

Ten Doesschate took the allegations that the defense is giving credence to conspiracy theories head on.

“It is the job of the defense to look critically at the evidence in the case file,” she said.

That case file, argued fellow defense lawyer Boudewijn van Eijck, is poorly organized and lacks a sufficient overview, which he called a “hindrance” to moving forward to a trial on the merits. 

The lawyer also targeted Ukrainian prosecutors who were dismissed for corruption in 2016, following pressure from the United States. President Donald Trump called for an inquiry into those departures, as part of a phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that led to his impeachment.

Van Eijck wants the prosecutors’ dismissals investigated as well as an inquiry into whether the former prosecutors “tampered with evidence” in the MH17 case. 

The Dutch legal system is an inquisitorial system, where the court is involved in the investigation of the crime, as opposed to the U.S. adversarial system, where two sides present competing evidence before an impartial judge or jury.

The Netherlands has taken on the prosecution in part because a majority of the victims were Dutch. Proceedings are being held in the high-security Schiphol Judicial Complex near the airport in Amsterdam. 

Hearings will resume Friday morning when the three-person public prosecution team responds to the requests by the defense. 

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