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Prosecution addresses Dutch court for last time in MH17 trial

A verdict in the trial, which started just before the Netherlands’ Covid-19 outbreak in 2020, is expected by the end of the year.

SCHIPHOL, Netherlands (CN) — The prosecution had its last chance Monday to convince a Dutch court that four men should be held guilty of downing a passenger jet over eastern Ukraine.

A three-judge panel of the District Court of The Hague heard the final rebuttal from both the Netherlands Public Prosecution Service and lawyers for the relatives of the 298 people who were killed when the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, or MH17, was shot down in July 2014 en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

An international investigation team from the Netherlands, Australia, Malaysia, Belgium and Ukraine concluded the crash of MH17 was caused by a Buk surface-to-air missile belonging by the Russian military and given to Russian-backed separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine. Moscow has denied any involvement in the tragedy. 

“The defense has failed to present a specific, unambiguous alternative scenario,” prosecutor Manon Ridderbeks told the court, which has decamped from The Hague to a highly secure facility near the Schiphol Airport outside Amsterdam, where the flight departed from on that fateful summer day. 

The Netherlands has charged the four defendants – Russian nationals Igor Girkin, Sergei Dubinsky and Oleg Pulatov and Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko —  with supplying the weapon system. All of them remain at large. Only Pulatov is represented by counsel, while the other three are being tried in absentia. 

In March, Pulatov’s defense team asked the court for a full acquittal.

“Our client is not the one who pressed the button, not the one who ordered the button to be pressed, not the one who authorized the button to be pressed and not the one who provided the weapon,” defense lawyer Sabine ten Doesschate told the court at the time. According to her, the prosecution willfully turned a blind eye to other explanations for the disaster. She also questioned the validity of much of the evidence presented over the two-year trial. 

The defense wants much of that evidence thrown out. Pulatov’s lawyers argued that because much of the evidence sat unguarded for months in a field in the middle of the war zone, the wreckage was compromised. Russian-backed separatists moved in 2014 to create two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine, the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic. Moscow has since recognized both.

Ridderbeks pushed back at Monday's hearing, saying there was no legal basis to disregard evidence that was not immediately recovered, comparing the MH17 process to a murder investigation when the body is recovered years later. 

At the end of last year, the prosecution asked for a rare life sentence for all four men. “Only the maximum sentence is appropriate,” Ridderbecks argued in December.

The trial is being held in the Netherlands since most of the passengers were Dutch, many heading for a summer holiday. Under Dutch law, the Netherlands has the right to prosecute crimes that occur against its citizens abroad and can choose to include victims of other nationalities. 

Lawyers for the relatives have asked for between 40,000 and 50,000 euros ($41,000 to $52,000) in damages depending on the relationship the surviving relative had with the victim. Part of Monday’s hearing was spent on the various legal teams debating whether civil procedure should be taken up by the criminal court. Under the so-called Rome II Regulation, countries in the European Union are obliged to consider claims for damages under the law where the event occurred. Pulatov’s defense has argued considering the Ukrainian regulations for compensation are too complicated for this proceeding and that should be addressed by another court.  

The Dutch are currently pursuing several other legal avenues to bring justice to the victims of MH17. Earlier this year, the European Court of Human Rights heard arguments in a complaint originally brought by Ukraine and then joined by the Netherlands over the long-running conflict in the eastern part of the country. The Dutch argued that Russia had control over the region when the plane was downed and is therefore responsible for the tragedy. Russia left the Council of Europe, which oversees the court, following its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, but proceedings that occurred before it withdrew will continue.

The Netherlands has also, together with Australia, launched a case at the United Nations’ aviation body, the International Civil Aviation Organization, arguing the Russian Federation violated the 1944 Chicago Convention in downing the passenger jet. The treaty, signed by 193 countries, gives countries sovereignty over their own air and outlaws the use of weapons against civilian aircraft.

Hearings in The Hague District Court will continue on Tuesday. In June, the defense will have the opportunity to respond and a verdict in the case is expected by the end of the year. 

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