Free in Russia, Commander Charged in MH17 Crash Offers Video Testimony

Video shown at a hearing on the MH17 plane crash shows one of the defendants, ex-Russian military commander Oleg Pulatov, sitting in what appears to be a home office with his attorney, Sabine ten Doesschate. (Image via Courthouse News)

AMSTERDAM (CN) — Emotions ran high Friday as a Dutch criminal court heard from one of the four men charged in the downing of Flight MH17, in the last block of hearings leading up to a 2021 trial. 

In a video played at the hearing, ex-Russian military commander Oleg Pulatov is shown with an interpreter. Charged with 298 counts of murder for his role in the shooting down the passenger airline in 2014, Pulatov called the accusations against him “ridiculous.”

Four men, three Russian and one Ukrainian have been charged with providing the Buk missile said to have shot down the Malaysia Airlines flight en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur in July 2014. Preliminary hearings started before The Hague District Court in March and have mostly focused on further investigation requests from the defense. 

Lawyers indicated in September that Pulatov wanted to address the court. Pulatov is not in the custody 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. 

During hearings last week in a high-security courtroom near Schiphol airport, one video was shown in which Pulatov is interviewed by his lawyer, Sabine ten Doesschate in what appears to be a home office. In the second, Pulatov sits side-by-side with his Russian lawyer, Yelena Kutina, while someone off-camera shows photos of Pulatov as a young boy, while discussing his childhood. 

“It is very annoying, I cannot work, I cannot travel,” he said when asked how the trial affects him. 

Emotions ran high on Friday, the second day of the response from the public prosecution service. After Pulatov’s lawyer ten Doesschate did not return after a break, her co-counsel, Boudewijn van Eijck, explained this was because she was approached while in the bathroom by one of the victim’s relatives “in a very aggressive manner.” 

Video shown at a hearing on the MH17 plane crash shows one of the defendants, ex-Russian military commander Oleg Pulatov, discussing his childhood while someone off-camera shows photos of Pulatov as a young boy. (Image via Courthouse News)

Van Eijck told the court this was caused by the prosecution’s “extremely inflammatory” statements. Prosecutor Ward Ferdinandusse attempted to defend his colleagues, which led to a back and forth between him and van Eijck. The debate was interrupted by Presiding Judge Hendrik Steenhuis, who said the prosecution could continue where it had left off now that ten Doesschate’s absence was explained. 

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. In part because a majority of the victims were Dutch, the Netherlands has taken on the prosecution of tragedy.

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. During the previous nine months, the defense has raised repeated questions about the conclusion of the Dutch-led Joint Investigative Task Force, which found that the airplane was shot down by a Buk missile from rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine. 

Ten Doesschate denied that the requests for more investigation were a stalling tactic, as some have alleged. “At the end of a hearing, we read in the media that people are pretty sure the reason for all of this is delay,” she told the three-judge panel.

“From day one, whenever possible, we’ve taken every opportunity to assist the defense,” prosecutor Thijs Berger said on Thursday. “The defense simply seems to be raising points which have no substance.” Responding to the defense allegations that MH17 could have been shot down by a Ukrainian fighter jet, Berger on Friday dismissed them as a bag of contradictory purported indications. 

Both in the media and in the courtroom, disinformation has plagued the proceedings. “The fate of flight MH17 has become a textbook example of a disinformation campaign,” said Dedy Woei-a-Tsoi, another member of the prosecution team, told the court during an earlier hearing.

In addition to the trial, the Netherlands is pursuing legal action over the tragedy directly against Russia, which has been accused of sowing doubt as a way to deflect blame. The Netherlands filed an intra-state complaint with the European Court of Human Rights in July.

Once the court rules on all of the investigation requests on November 25, a trial on the merits will start in February 2021. 

Sergei Dubinsky, pictured here in video shown at a Dutch hearing on the MH17 crash, will be tried in absentia. (Image via Courthouse News)
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