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Monday, April 22, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Rare life sentence sought for men accused of downing Flight MH17 

Only 44 defendants tried by courts in the Netherlands have been given life sentences in the past 20 years. 

SCHIPHOL, Netherlands (CN) — Prosecutors in the trial of four men charged with downing Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014 want the suspects put away for the rest of their lives if they are convicted. 

"Only the maximum sentence is appropriate," prosecutor Manon Ridderbecks said Wednesday in The Hague District Court, where three Russian men and one Ukrainian man are being tried for allegedly supplying the Buk surface-to-air missile that shot Flight MH17 out of the sky. 

The trial is being held at a highly secure courtroom near Schiphol Airport where the flight departed, en route to Kuala Lumpur, on July 17, 2014. In addition to downing an aircraft, the four defendants are charged with 298 counts of murder for the 283 passengers and 15 crew members killed. Of the passengers, 198 were Dutch, many heading for a summer holiday.

“We've waited 7.5 years for this moment,” Piet Ploeg, who lost his brother, sister-in-law and nephew in the tragedy, told reporters Wednesday after the hearing. He has been present for every single one of the 49 hearings in the trial since it began in March 2020. 

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. Dutch law also says the shooting down of any aircraft is illegal. The Netherlands outlawed attacking aircraft when it signed the Hague Hijacking Convention in 1970. 

"It does not matter that they likely did not intend to hit a civilian aircraft," prosecutor Thijs Berger told the court Wednesday.

Prosecutors allege that the four defendants — Igor Girkin, Sergei Dubinsky and Oleg Pulatov, all Russian nationals, and Leonid Kharchenko of Ukraine — had military leadership roles in the government of a breakaway region of Ukraine called the Donetsk People’s Republic.

All of the men remain at large, and only Pulatov has retained legal counsel. The other three are being tried in absentia. Should the men be convicted and subsequently captured, they would have the right to ask for an entirely new trial. It’s not clear what that process would look like. “We will see what comes,” said Digna van Boetzelaer, a spokesperson for the Public Prosecution Service told Dutch News. The three Russian men are still living in Russia, which does not extradite its own citizens. Kharchenko's whereabouts are unknown. 

Life sentences in the Netherlands are rare, with only 44 being imposed in the past two decades. In only one other case in the last 20 years — the 2006 murder of Marisse van den Burg — was someone given a life sentence in absentia. Her ex-husband, Hasen Aksema, fled to his native Libya with their daughter after the crime but was convicted of the brutal attack in 2009. 

Earlier this week at the start of opening statements, the prosecution painstakingly laid out the evidence that Girkin, Dubinsky, Pulatov and Kharchenko arranged for transportation of the Buk from the Russian border into Ukraine, ordered its use and then organized the weapon's removal back across the border. 

The trial will continue in March when the defense will take 12 days to present their closing arguments. 

Unlike the adversarial justice system found in the U.S., where two sides present competing evidence before an impartial judge or jury, the Dutch legal system is an inquisitorial one where the court is involved in the investigation of the crime.

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Categories / Criminal, International, Trials

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