Dutch Court Limits Probe Into Air Disaster That Killed 298

A court in the Netherlands, where the doomed flight originated, said it would not consider alternative scenarios.

What remained on July 20, 2014, three days after Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine, killing all 298 people onboard. (AP file photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)

AMSTERDAM (CN) — Further investigation into the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 can be made, but not into alternative scenarios about what caused the plane to be shot down over eastern Ukraine in July 2014, killing all 298 aboard, a Dutch court ruled Friday.

A five-country team led by the Netherlands concluded Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was shot down by separatists over eastern Ukraine in 2014, but attorneys for the defense claim the Ukrainian military was responsible and wanted the Dutch court to investigate further. 

The defense team for Oleg Pulatov, a former lieutenant colonel in the Russian armed forces, can investigate whether the plane was shot down by accident and interview possible alibi witnesses, presiding judge Hendrick Steenhuis told the court, but not whether the plane was shot down by a Ukrainian fighter jet or used by the Ukrainian military as a human shield. 

Pulatov and three other men have been charged with 298 counts of murder before The Hague District Court, accused of supplying the Buk-TELAR missile alleged to have shot down the plane en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lampur. The Buk-TELAR is a self-propelled, ground-to-air missile developed by the Soviet Union and its successor state, Russia.

Two other Russian men — Igor Girkin and Sergei Dubinsky — and one Ukrainian man, Leonid Kharchenko, also have been charged and are being tried in absentia

In late June, the defense was given several days to propose its demands for further investigation, including alternative scenarios, reinterviewing witnesses and questioning the findings of the forensic experts. 

Yet prosecutors felt many of these requests were necessary and have called the alternative scenarios “Russian conspiracy theories.” 

The Dutch legal system is an inquisitorial system in which the court is involved in the investigation of the crime. 

The three-judge-panel did approve a request that the prosecution ask the United States again for classified satellite data. The U.S. Embassy in Ukraine posted on Facebook that it had seen a missile hit the airliner, but declined to provide any images, citing national security concerns. 

The defense will be allowed to interview a number of witnesses and examine the plane’s wreckage, which is stored at the Gilze-Rijen Air Base in the southern Netherlands country.

At a news conference after the hearing, prosecutors said they were happy with the outcome. “We now have clarity about the next step,” a representative said. 

The trial began in March with what the Dutch call an inventariseren, where judges check to see which suspects are present in court and which are represented by counsel, and review evidence. The prosecution laid out the evidence against the four men in a series of hearings in June. 

Roughly four months before the tragedy, Russia annexed Crimea, a peninsula extending from Ukraine’s southern coast, after the pro-Russian government of Ukraine was overthrown. The annexation provided Russia with a long-desired warm seaport — and vacation spot.

The 10 countries with citizens onboard the doomed MH17 flight tried to create an international tribunal but Russia blocked it at the United Nations.

“The MH17 case is a special criminal case,” Judge Steenhuis told the court. 

The court will resume at the end of August for more pretrial hearings. The trial on the merits is expected to begin next year. 

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