Preliminary hearings over the 2014 downing of the aircraft began over a year ago and the merits phase of the trial is set to start next month after being delayed amid the coronavirus pandemic.
GILZE EN RIJEN, Netherlands (CN) — The Hague District Court decamped to an airbase in the southern Netherlands on Wednesday to view the wreckage of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.
It was a grey and cold day as the judicial panel, public prosecutors, defense lawyers, victims lawyers, court staff and reporters looked inside the hangar where the remaining parts of the downed aircraft, known as MH17, are stored.
“It is a special location, with a special character,” Presiding Judge Hendrik Steenhuis told the group, assembled in a tent outside the hangar before the three-judge panel, plus their two substitute judges, made their initial tour.
Three Russian men — Igor Girkin, Sergei Dubinsky, and Oleg Pulatov — and one Ukraine man, Leonid Kharchenko, are charged with 298 counts of murder for allegedly supplying the Buk missile that prosecutors say shot down the Boeing 777 as it was flying over eastern Ukraine in July 2014, en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.
Only one man, Pulatov, is being represented by counsel, though he is currently living in Russia and not in the custody of the Dutch authorities. The other three are being tried in absentia. The Netherlands has taken on the prosecution of MH17 case in part because a majority of the victims were Dutch.
The Dutch public prosecutor had requested the site visit, arguing during an earlier hearing that it was important for the judges to see the full destruction. The prosecution and experts from the Royal Netherlands Aerospace Centre, the Belgian Royal Military Academy,and Almaz-Antey, the Russian manufacturer of the Buk missile, all offered the judges suggestions as to what to pay special attention to.
What remains of the aircraft has been mounted over a black metal frame and stretches about 65 feet long. Large pieces of the plane’s white exterior are still missing, destroyed in the crash, or left unrecovered in a war zone. The hangar also houses the plane’s wings and several other large pieces, including a rear door.
The judges and lawyers made an initial examination Wednesday morning before spending several hours on a more thorough inspection in the afternoon, including mounting a cherry picker lift to view the front of the cockpit, where experts say the missile that brought down MH17 actually exploded. All the while, helicopters flew noisily overhead, as the wreckage is stored on an active Dutch air force base.
“You can’t get closer to the deaths of so many victims,” Arlette Schijns, one of the lawyers representing the families of the victims, told the judges after viewing the plane.
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. According to the Dutch authorities, all four defendants were involved in a Russian-backed separatist group operating in the region. Two were former members of Russian military intelligence and one was a colonel in Russia’s FSB intelligence service, the successor agency of the KGB.
The 10 countries with citizens on board MH17 tried to create an international tribunal to look into the tragedy but that was blocked by Russia at the United Nations.
The trial on the merits was originally scheduled to start in February but has been postponed until next month. The defense counsel cited repeated problems in meeting with their client, who remains in Russia, due to travel restrictions because of the Covid-19 outbreak.
Further preliminary hearings will follow on Thursday and Friday and the merits phase of the trial is set to open on June 7 at a high-security courthouse near Schiphol Airport, where MH17 departed on its fateful flight.