Families of Victims Seek Damages From Suspects in MH17 Plane Crash

Presiding Judge Hendrik Steenhuis, center, opens a court session near Amsterdam on Monday as the trial resumed for three Russians and a Ukrainian charged with murder for their alleged roles in the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014. (Piroschka van de Wouw/Pool photo via AP)

AMSTERDAM (CN) — The trial of four men accused of downing Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 six years ago resumed Monday to hear from lawyers for relatives of the victims, who argued the suspects should have to pay damages to family members.

The two-week block of preliminary arguments is the latest phase of a trial that kicked off in March, in which four men are charged with 298 counts of murder before the District Court of The Hague for allegedly supplying the Buk missile that prosecutors say shot down MH17 as it was flying over eastern Ukraine. 

Much of the day was spent on lawyers for some 450 family members addressing procedural issues related to financial compensation and victim impact statements. 

“It’s about justice, fairness, crime and punishment,” Arlette Schijns told the panel of judges, who were separated by plexiglass barriers as prevention against Covid-19 transmission.

For security reasons, the court is sitting in a special session in a high-security courtroom near Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, which is where the Malaysian airliner departed from on July 17, 2014, en route to Kuala Lumpur. 

People walk among the debris at the MH17 crash site near the village of Grabove, Ukraine, in July 2014. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky, File)

Together with Peter Langstraat, Schijns argued the criminal court can adjudicate civil claims made by victims’ relatives, including demands for damages. Under Dutch law, victims of violent crime can sue perpetrators for financial compensation.

“This is not compensation, but recognition for the victim’s suffering,” Schijns said. 

No relatives have yet filed such a request but according to Langstraat, more than 300 have indicated that they plan to do so. Langstraat also said 76 relatives want to make a victim impact statement before the court, as is their right under Dutch law. As relatives are spread across the world, Langstraat suggested they may be able to address the court via video link or by a prerecorded message. 

At the end of the hearing, Presiding Judge Henrik Steenhuis announced that the court agreed with the requests and set a deadline of Feb. 1, 2021, for relatives to indicate that they want to participate. 

The Netherlands has taken on the prosecution of MH17 case because a majority of the victims were Dutch – of the 298 people on board the plane, 198 were from The Netherlands. The rest were from Malaysia, Australia, Indonesia, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Germany, the Philippines, Canada and New Zealand. 

The defendants include three Russians — Igor Girkin, Sergei Dubinsky, and Oleg Pulatov — and one Ukrainian, Leonid Kharchenko. None were present in the courtroom Monday. Pulatov is represented by counsel while the other three are being tried in absentia.

Defense lawyers have been criticized for dragging their feet to slow down the proceedings. They claim that they are being hindered by Covid-19 restrictions that prevent them from meeting with their client in Russia. 

Lawyer Sabine ten Doesschate said Monday morning that the defense team tried to travel but their flights were canceled at the last minute and they were unable to get to Russia via another European city.

Clearly frustrated, public prosecutor Ward Ferdinandusse told the defense that there are multiple flights each week from Amsterdam to Moscow and he would be happy to help them book a flight if need be. 

Months before the MH17 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 but that was blocked by Russia at the United Nations.

Hearings are scheduled to resume on Sept. 28.

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