AMSTERDAM (CN) — The long-awaited trial of four men accused of downing Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 six years ago will start in February, the District Court of The Hague ruled Wednesday.
The ruling was one of dozens of decisions announced by Presiding Judge Hendrik Steenhuis, bringing the preliminary part of the trial, which began in March, to a close.
Four men, three Russian and one Ukrainian, have been charged with murder for allegedly providing the Buk missile said to have shot down the flight, known as MH17, which was en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur on July 17, 2014. The Netherlands has taken on the prosecution of tragedy in part because a majority of the victims were Dutch.
“It is clear that the defense has made many requests to the court,” Steenhuis said Wednesday in a high-security courtroom near Schiphol airport, where the flight took off from.
Only Russian suspect Oleg Pulatov is represented by counsel, though he is not in the custody of Dutch authorities. He remains in Russia, which does not allow its citizens to be extradited. The three other men charged — Igor Girkin, Sergei Dubinsky and Leonid Kharchenko — are not represented by counsel and will be tried in absentia.
The court rejected all of the defense’s requests regarding so-called alternative scenarios for the cause of the crash, on the grounds that if the prosecution fails to prove the airplane was shot down by Russian-backed separatists from rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine, Pulatov would be acquitted anyway.
“Not all information receives consideration and conclusions,” Steenhuis said.
The defense has suggested that it was possible the Boeing 737 was shot down by a Ukrainian fighter jet or from a Buk missile controlled by the Ukrainian military, possibilities which were ruled out by the Dutch-led Joint Investigative Task Force, or JIT.
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.
Lawyers indicated in September that Pulatov wanted to address the court. Steenhuis said Wednesday that the court has plenty of questions for him, but that he will have to make himself available to the court if he wishes to testify.
“The court will not deviate from the regular procedure,” The judge said, rejecting the defense’s offer to submit questions in writing.
The court did allow further investigation into some witnesses, including members of the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade, which is based in the western Russia city of Kursk. The JIT concluded that the brigade provided the Buk missile at the heart of the case. Previous requests from the Dutch public prosecution service to speak with service members in the unit have been rejected by the Russian government, but Steenhuis said that perhaps authorities will decide differently now that the request is coming from a Russian citizen.
Months before the crash, 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 would later obstruct the 10 countries whose citizens were killed in the crash from creating an international tribunal at the United Nations.
The Hague court also ruled Wednesday on requests from lawyers for the relatives of the victims, who want the court to provide more information to them. Steenhuis said the lawyers may have access to one copy of the approximately 40,000-page case file.
The remaining investigation questions do not have to be addressed before the trial on the merits can start next year, the court concluded. In the last block of hearings, the defense argued that the case was moving too quickly. But Steenhuis said Wednesday that the court had “largely adopted” the schedule proposed by the defense in June and was unwilling to delay the trial, which is scheduled to start on Feb. 1, 2021.