Dutch Prosecutor Pushes Back on Russia in Plane Crash Trial

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)

AMSTERDAM (CN) — Russia’s alternative theories about how a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet was shot down over Ukraine in 2014 are not plausible, a Dutch public prosecutor said during the trial of four men accused of helping to bring it down.

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

The latest block of hearings began on Monday, with the Pulatov’s defense counsel addressing a number of issues they have with the proceedings. Only Pulatov is being represented by lawyers. Girkin, Dubinsky and Kharchenko are being tried in absentia. 

On Tuesday, the public prosecutor spent the day presenting a comprehensive examination of how the Joint Investigative Team, or JIT, came to the conclusion that a Buk missile was shot from rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine at the passenger aircraft.

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.

As Covid-19 restrictions have limited the number of press and relatives who can be present, the mostly empty courtroom watched a video of forensics specialists opening one small, bright blue suitcase, examining everything inside and cataloging the pieces of wreckage found in the passenger’s belongings. 

For hours on Tuesday, the three-person public prosecution team outlined every possible scenario that could have led to the disaster and why all other scenarios had been ruled out.

“There was no evidence to show that there was another aircraft near MH17,” said prosecutor Ward Ferdinandusse, discounting a theory put forth by Russia in the days after the crash that a Ukrainian fighter jet had shot the plane down. 

Moscow has frequently meddled in the case, both by supporting alternative theories of the crash that blame either Ukrainian forces or U.S. actors like the CIA and by refusing to hand over relevant information to the JIT. 

Most of Wednesday focused on the legal justification for bringing criminal charges in the Netherlands. The Netherlands has taken on the prosecution in part because a majority of the victims were Dutch. 

At the outset of Monday’s hearings, the defense indicated that it might try to invoke the so-called combatant privilege. Ferdinandusse took the court through an admittedly complex explanation of the international law concept, which prevents members of the armed forces from being charged during legitimate conflicts. 

Russia has repeatedly denied that it was a party to the conflict in eastern Ukraine, arguing it was independent separatists groups who took control of Crimea, a peninsula extending from Ukraine’s southern coast, following the overthrow of the pro-Russian government in the Eastern European country. 

If Pulatov was a member of the Russian military, he could have clarified this much earlier, the prosecutor said.

“Otherwise, he will be the first in the world to find out years later that he has been in the military all this time,” Ferdinandusse said. 

Wednesday afternoon was rounded out by wrangling between the prosecution and the defense over scheduling. The defense has repeatedly complained that they have not had sufficient time to prepare, a problem exacerbated by their inability to visit their client in Russia as a result of the pandemic. 

But prosecutor Thijs Berger contested this assertion, arguing that the parties could be in contact via phone or the internet.

“We can only conclude that Pulatov is not making the best use of his defense,” he said. 

It’s unclear why the communication between the accused and his own lawyers has been such a challenge. Some have alleged this is simply a tactic of the defense to drag the trial out, an allegation that defense lawyer Sabine ten Doesschate strongly denied on Wednesday.

“Delay is not our intention. We don’t want to delay, we cannot achieve anything by it in our interests,” she said.

It’s also possible that if Pulatov puts up too vigorous a defense he will run afoul of the Russian government. Arguing, for example, that he is entitled to immunity as a member of the armed forces would contradict Russia’s stance that it was not a party to the conflict. 

The scheduling discussion was ended by Presiding Judge Hendrik Steenhuis, who gave the defense until June 22 to make any further requests. Hearings will resume then. 

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