Seven Years After Flight’s Downing Over Ukraine, MH17 Trial Kicks Off

A district court at The Hague led up to this moment with 25 preliminary hearings since early 2020. 

The reconstructed wreckage of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 is seen at the Gilze-Rijen military airbase in the Netherlands on May 26, 2021. (Courthouse News photo/Molly Quell)

SCHIPHOL, Netherlands (CN) — The first day of trial for four men accused of shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014 opened and closed in rapid succession Monday, a discordant start for the seven-month slog ahead. 

In a high-security courtroom, near Schiphol Airport where MH17 departed nearly seven years ago, Presiding Judge Hendrik Steenhuis outlined a bit of why the trial is scheduled until at least November.

“The case file contains 65,000 pages and many hundreds of hours of audio and video material,” Steenhuis told members of the press and relatives of the victims who were able to get the limited seats available in the courtroom at the Schiphol Judicial Complex amid Covid-19 restrictions. 

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 on July 17, 2014. None of the suspects were present in the district courtroom and are presumed to be in Russia. Pulatov has retained counsel, while the other three are being tried in absentia. 

“It’s a pity they are not showing up. We would like to know who they are,” Evert van Zijtveld, who lost both of his children and his in-laws in the crash, told reporters before the hearing today.

Months before the tragedy, Ukrainian voters had overthrown the country’s pro-Russian government months before the tragedy, and Russia responded with the annexation of Crimea, a peninsula extending from Ukraine’s southern coast. Ten countries with citizens on the plane attempted an international tribunal to investigate the tragedy but were blocked by Russia at the United Nations. The Netherlands has taken on the prosecution of suspects the District Court at The Hague, in part because a majority of the victims on the flight that departed from Amsterdam en route to Kuala Lumpur were Dutch.

For the rest of the week, hearings before the court are expected to address three issues: First, was the plane shot down with a Buk missile? Second, was the missile fired from rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine? Third, did any of the four suspects play a role in the downing of the aircraft?

The defense has argued that there are several so-called alternative scenarios to the Buk missile conclusion, including a bomb on board the aircraft or that the plane was shot down by a Ukrainian military jet. 

Since none of the defendants are in the courtroom, the court cannot put questions to them as they might in a normal hearing. Presiding Judge Steenhuis said the three-judge panel will in turn spend the next few days “monologuing.” The public prosecution service is expected to present its case on June 16 and July 17. 

Steenhuis noted that the overview of the evidence might be difficult for some and told the relatives of the victims they were “welcome to leave the courtroom at any time.” 

Hearings will resume Tuesday. 

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