Dutch Court Ends First Phase of Trial Over Downed Flight

AMSTERDAM (CN) — Preliminary hearings wrapped up Tuesday in the Dutch murder trial of four men accused of helping to shoot down a Malaysian Airlines plane six years ago, killing all 298 people on board.

“We’re evaluating evidence even more stringently than we otherwise would,” said Thijs Berger, a member of the prosecution team who spent the better part of the hearing outlining what evidence would eventually be presented in the case before the three-judge panel at the District Court of The Hague.

A sign reads “Respect for MH17” during a commemoration in Amsterdam on July 21, 2014. (AP Photo/Margriet Faber, File)

Three Russian men — Igor Girkin, Sergei Dubinsky and Oleg Pulatov — and one Ukraine man, Leonid Kharchenko, are charged with 298 counts of murder for allegedly supplying the Buk missile that prosecutors say shot down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, or MH17, over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014.

Dutch trials generally begin with what is called an “inventariseren,” sometimes translated as an inventory taking, where the court takes stock of what evidence will be presented and addresses preliminary issues.

Hearings began Monday, when judges ruled it is possible to move forward with trying three of the men in absentia. Only one of the four men, Pulatov, has retained counsel.

None were present are the high-security Schiphol Judicial Complex near the airport in Amsterdam, where the case has been relocated in part out of concerns over security but also to accommodate the international interest in the case. The victims are from 10 different countries, including Malaysia, Belgium, and Australia.

While the wind howled outside, the public prosecutor repeatedly stressed during Tuesday’s hearing that the court was keen to interview Pulatov but they couldn’t guarantee he wouldn’t be arrested if he appeared in person.

“It would be very difficult for the families of the victims to see someone charged with the crime walk out of the courtroom,” Berger told the judges.

The prosecution also spent a large chunk of the day discussing the disinformation campaign they claim has been waged by Russia since the downing of the aircraft.

“The fate of flight MH17 has become a textbook example of a disinformation campaign,” said Dedy Woei-a-Tsoi, another member of the prosecution team.

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. The 10 countries with citizens on board tried to create an international tribunal to handle the case but that was blocked by Russia at the United Nations.

The Netherlands is hosting the trial, in part because 198 of the victims were Dutch. The flight took off from Schiphol, the Amsterdam airport that the courthouse takes its name from, and was destined for Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Towards the end of the hearing, the fully packed courtroom heard from both from Pulatov’s lawyers and those representing a large group of victims’ next-of-kin. The case is being live-streamed and though attendance in the space where the trial was being shown was down from Monday, when nearly 500 journalists turned up, the courtroom itself didn’t have a single empty seat.

A discussion over whether the family members of the victims will be able to access the full case file generated an extended back and forth between the prosecution and the lawyers for the next-of-kin.

The prosecution is concerned that the confidential information in the file will be leaked if it’s made available to the family members of the nearly 300 victims.

“If the defense can have the complete file, the victims should have the complete file as well,” said attorney Arlette Schijns, on behalf of the relatives.

That question, as well as other procedural requests made by all three sides, will be decided by the judges on March 23, when the hearing resumes.

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