AMSTERDAM (CN) — The trial of four men charged with 298 counts of murder for their alleged role in the downing of a Malaysian Airlines plane resumed Monday, with one defense attorney arguing coronavirus travel restrictions have hindered their preparations.
The judges and prosecutors were separated with plastic partitions to prevent the spread of Covid-19 before a mostly empty courtroom near Amsterdam, a dramatic change from the start of the trial when some 500 journalists turned up. Seating was limited at the hearing to ensure social distance.
The hearing opened with a short presentation from Presiding Judge Hendrik Steenhuis, who outlined the agenda for the next few days. Hearings are scheduled to continue until July 3, though it is unlikely that proceedings will occur every day. Steenhuis also warned the Dutch government would be testing its national alert system at noon, likely preparing foreign watchers of the court’s live stream for the interruption.
Three Russian men — Igor Girkin, Sergei Dubinsky and Oleg Pulatov — and one Ukrainian man, Leonid Kharchenko, are charged with supplying the Buk missile that prosecutors say shot down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, or MH17, over eastern Ukraine in July 2014. None of them were present in the high-security Schiphol Judicial Complex near the airport in Amsterdam.
The first phase of hearings began in March, when the 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. Monday’s proceedings were part of a series of pretrial hearings to address procedural concerns.
Following the opening statements by the presiding judge, Pulatov’s lawyer, Sabine ten Doesschate, outlined the numerous problems the defense has had in preparing their case. They asked for more time to get ready, saying they have been unable to travel to Russia to meet with their client due to Covid-19 travel restrictions.
The public prosecutor had previously suggested that they could contact Pulatov by phone or video conference, but ten Doesschate said “it’s undesirable to do so.”
The case has required a tremendous level of security based on concerns of meddling by the Russian government. Several witnesses are testifying anonymously out of fear of reprisal for going against Moscow’s line that Ukraine shot down the aircraft.
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 the plane tried to create an international tribunal to handle the case, but that was blocked by Russia at the United Nations.
The Netherlands has taken on the prosecution of the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner, which departed from Amsterdam en route to Kuala Lumpur on July 17, 2014, in part because a majority of the victims were Dutch.
Monday afternoon saw the public prosecutor outlining the evidence against the four men. 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.
Extensive forensic investigation into the wreckage was undertaken by multiple countries. Most of the remnants were brought back to the Netherlands, but both Finland and Ukraine undertook research into the missile explosions to confirm the type of weapon used to shoot down the passenger aircraft.
“Protection of witnesses has been done in a variety of ways,” prosecutor Dedy Woei-a-Tsoi said as she described the methods of finding and ensuring the safety of witnesses.
Thirteen witnesses had been granted “threatened witness” status, which allows them to testify anonymously and keeps their personal details out of the case file. The defense had contested all 13 and the court did rule that one witness — identified as V11 — should not be granted the status.
The hearing will resume on Tuesday.