AMSTERDAM (CN) – For 19 minutes before a silent courtroom Monday, a Dutch prosecutor read the names of all 298 victims of downed flight MH17 during the opening of a trial of four men accused of being involved in the crime.
MH17 Disaster Foundation Chairman Piet Ploeg, who lost his brother, sister-in-law and nephew in the tragedy, told reporters: “The next of kin want justice, simple as that.”
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 Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 as it was flying over eastern Ukraine in 2014. None of the suspects were present in the courtroom, though Pulatov had retained counsel; two Dutch and one Russian counsel for Pulatov were present.
Monday was the first day of two weeks of scheduled hearings in the District Court of The Hague, sitting in a special session near Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport.
Presiding Judge Hendrik Steenhuis opened with a lengthy statement about the weight of the crime.
“The court realizes that the impact of the loss of so many human lives can hardly be imagined,” he said before the full courtroom.
The courtroom was silent and relatives sat with eyes closed as prosecutor Dedy Woei-a-Tsoi read aloud the names of everyone killed in the crash.
Hundreds of journalists have turned up to report on the case, which is being live-streamed, as well as in multiple locations within the Netherlands where families of the victims have gathered to watch.
The Netherlands has taken on the prosecution of the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner, which departed from Amsterdam en route to Kuala Lumpur on July 17, 2014, in part because a majority of the victims were Dutch.
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. The 10 countries with citizens on board tried to create an international tribunal but that was blocked by Russia at the United Nations.
“The first hearing day is devoted to stock taking,” Steenhuis said.
Dutch trials generally begin with what is called an “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 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.
The three-judge panel moved on to determine whether the three suspects without counsel – Girkin, Dubinsky, and Kharchenko – had been properly notified of the charges against them. Steenhuis outlined the various communication methods, including hand delivery, email, Facebook, VK (the Russian version of What’s App) and more.
“Have the defendants been fully and properly informed? Yes,” the judge said, concluding that the trial can proceed against the three men in absentia.
In the afternoon, the public prosecutor’s office outlined the results of the yearslong investigation into the downing of the aircraft by the Dutch-led Joint Investigative Task Force.
“There were many and varied contributions from ordinary citizens in collecting the evidence,” said Ward Ferdinandusse, one of the four members of the prosecution team, likely referring to work done by Bellingcat, a journalism website that specializes in open-source intelligence investigations.
Following the presentation by the prosecution, the representatives for Pulatov addressed the court. Their appearance was a bit of a surprise. Under Dutch law, should Pulatov be convicted in absentia but captured by authorities at a later date, he could ask that the trial be redone. Now that he has retained legal counsel, the trial proceeds as though he is present.
Boudewijn van Eijck, one of the two lawyers for Pulatov, questioned why Ukraine hadn’t closed down its airspace.
“Every state has sovereignty over the airspace of its own territory,” van Eijck said, previewing that the likely approach of the defense will be to muddy the waters regarding Ukraine’s involvement.
Russia has long held that it was Ukraine who shot down the plane. “While cooperating with Dutch law enforcement agencies, Russia presented overwhelming evidence proving that Ukrainian Buk missile systems had been used to down the flight en-route from the Netherlands,” the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement in 2018.
According to the Dutch authorities, all four men were involved in a Russian-backed separatist group operating in the region. Two were former members of Russian military intelligence, and one was a colonel in Russia’s FSB intelligence service, the successor agency of the KGB.
The final word of the day went to Peter Langstraat, who is representing the families of the victims. His remarks were extremely brief and focused on the preference for the victims to keep the focus of the trial on the four men charged and not broader issues like Ukrainian liability.
Forty-nine family members want to personally address the court and another 82 plan to do so in writing.
“The next of kin of all of the deceased enjoy legal rights,” Judge Steenhuis said at the start of Monday’s hearing.
On Sunday, the eve of the trial, families of the victims staged a protest across the street from the Russian embassy in The Hague by placing 298 chairs, laid out like airplane seats. They want to call attention to Russia’s lack of cooperation. Russia has a policy of not extraditing citizens and has repeatedly disparaged the investigation.
“They will never spend time in jail, but we can’t do anything about it, they won’t be extradited. It’s a fact that we will have to deal with,” said Ploeg, head of the MH17 Disaster Foundation.
The hearing will resume Tuesday.