Lawyers for Suspect in MH17 Plane Crash Cast Doubt on Investigation

People walk among debris at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 near the village of Grabove, Ukraine, on July 17, 2014. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky, File)

AMSTERDAM (CN) — Defense lawyers for one of the four men charged with the downing of a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet spent Monday questioning the six-year investigation that concluded the plane was shot down by Ukrainian separatists using a surface-to-air missile. 

“Objective fact-finding was put very much on the back burner,” attorney Boudewijn van Eijck said of the probe conducted by the Joint Investigation Team, the five-country team led by the Netherlands that investigated what happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, or MH17, as it flew over eastern Ukraine in 2014.

Van Eijck is one of the two lawyers defending Oleg Pulatov, an ex-lieutenant colonel in the Russian armed forces who has been charged with 298 counts of murder before The Hague District Court. His co-defendants, two other Russian men – Igor Girkin and Sergei Dubinsky – and one Ukrainian man, Leonid Kharchenko, are all being tried in absentia. 

The trial officially started in March with what the Dutch call a “inventariseren,” where the judges check to see which suspects are present in court and which are represented by counsel, as well as going over the available evidence. The prosecution had the opportunity to lay out the evidence against the four men in a series of hearings two weeks ago. 

During Monday’s hearing, the defense went beyond simply trying to prove their client wasn’t culpable for the downing of the passenger airline, which was en route to Kuala Lumpur from Amsterdam, and also attempted to discredit the entire scenario put forth by the prosecution.

“The crash site wasn’t sealed for four months and this means you can’t rule out that evidence was lost, damaged or even planted,” van Eijck said. 

According to the Joint Investigation Team and the prosecution, the only possible scenario was that the Boeing 737 was shot down while flying over separatist-held territory by a Buk missile that was brought over the border from Russia the day before. The prosecution claims that the rebels mistook the passenger airliner for a Ukrainian military 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. Russia has strongly denied any involvement in the downing of MH17. 

But the defense outlined numerous problems it had with the Buk theory, ranging from criticism of the Netherlands Forensic Institute to complaints about the involvement of Ukraine in the investigation.

“Ukraine had undeniable influence over the investigation,” argued Pulatov’s other lawyer, Sabine ten Doesschate. 

The defense argued both in favor of the idea that a Ukrainian military aircraft shot the plane down as well as the idea that Ukraine used the passenger aircraft as a human shield, forcing the rebels to shoot it down. 

The Netherlands has taken on the prosecution in part because a majority of the victims were Dutch. Proceedings are being held in the high-security Schiphol Judicial Complex near the airport in Amsterdam. 

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. As such, the defense requested that nearly every witness in the case be re-interviewed as well as adding a substantial list of both witnesses and experts who weren’t spoken to during the initial investigation. 

The defense will continue with its requests for further investigation Tuesday, though they cautioned at the outset of Monday’s hearing the list wouldn’t be complete due to difficulties mounting a defense because of the Covid-19 outbreak. 

%d bloggers like this: