Trial Over Downed Plane Presses on Amid Outbreak

AMSTERDAM (CN) – Hearings in the trial of four men accused of downing a Malaysian Airlines plane and killing everyone on board briefly resumed Monday in a nearly empty Netherlands courtroom, as the coronavirus outbreak restricts judicial systems around the world.

It was a dramatic change from the start of the trial two weeks ago. The courtroom near Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport was devoid of press and relatives. Only one public prosecutor, one defense lawyer, and three judges appeared in person for the continuation of the trial of four men charged with 298 counts of murder in the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, or MH17, over eastern Ukraine six years ago.

The seats for the accused stand empty on March 10, 2020, in the the trial of four men charged with murder over the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

No journalists were present in the specially built press center, which had held nearly 500 members of the press from all over the world just two weeks ago. The case is being tried in The Hague District Court, which is holding the trial at a highly secure judicial complex near the very airport where MH17 took off from, en route to Kuala Lumpur, in July 2014.

Monday started the second scheduled block of preliminary hearings, addressing a number of procedural concerns. Journalists were able to follow the hearings via live stream.

“I will note for the record that none of the defendants are present,” opened Presiding Judge Hendrik Steenhuis.

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 plane. Only Pulatov has retained counsel, but they too were watching the proceedings via the live stream.

The Netherlands is currently under lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus known as Covid-19. Bars and restaurants are closed, schools are shut and the judicial system is operating at a reduced capacity.

“If the case did not resume today, the case might have to be restarted at a future point in time and the court did not want that,” Judge Steenhuis said.

Steenhuis announced several procedural decisions the court has made that had been requested by the public prosecutor and the defense team, as well as lawyers for the relatives of the victims.

Lawyers for the next-of-kin will have access to the summaries of the case file, but their clients will not.

“This is to minimize the risk of information leakage,” said Steenhuis. Relatives had asked that they be able to view all of the information in the case file but the prosecution rejected that request, citing concerns over security.

Other requests had come from the prosecution, who wanted to decamp for part of the trial to a Dutch airbase in Gilze-Rijen, where much of the wreckage is stored, to view the fuselage. The court asked for more information from the prosecution before it could make a decision.

The prosecution had also requested more witness interviews and for more information to be added to the case file. However, the three-judge panel ruled that they will make those decisions once defense lawyers for Pulatov can be heard in June. The other three defendants are being tried in absentia.

The judges had some questions for the prosecution as well, including whether classified U.S. satellite images will be added to the case file. There has been some evidence that the United States would be willing to declassify this material to be used during the trial, but it’s not clear if the prosecution plans to make that request.

Monday’s hearing reached its end in little more than an hour and hearings will continue June 8. It’s not yet clear if the trial will proceed as normal, with the press and the public present, or if it will continue to operate mostly via live stream.

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