MH17 plane crash trial opens in the Netherlands

Trial begins of three Russians and a Ukrainian accused of killing 298 people

The trial of three Russians and a Ukrainian accused of murdering 298 people in the shooting down of flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine has begun in the Netherlands.

The presiding judge, Hendrik Steenhuis, said “the loss of so many lives and the manner in which they so abruptly ended is barely conceivable” as he opened the case on Monday at the Schiphol judicial complex, close to the airport from where the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 took off for Kuala Lumpur on 17 July 2014.

The aircraft was shot down over the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine by a Buk anti-aircraft missile, killing everyone onboard. The victims came from 17 countries. Most – 193 people – were Dutch nationalsOthers were Malaysian, Australian, Indonesian and British.

“Especially for next of kin this will be a very painful and emotional period,” Steenhuis said as he opened proceedings by describing how Dutch criminal law treats defendants and victims.

After a painstaking international investigation, Dutch prosecutors alleged that four men had responsibility for the missile launch: the Russians Igor Girkin, Sergey Dubinskiy and Oleg Pulatov, and the Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko. All were senior commanders fighting Ukrainian forces in the Russian-backed Donetsk People’s Republic.

Igor Girkin

A former colonel in Vladimir Putin’s FSB spy agency, Girkin became the most notorious personality of the war in eastern Ukraine. In April 2014 he led the takeover of the Ukrainian town of Slavyansk and became defence minister in the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR). According to leaked phone intercepts, Girkin was involved in the cover-up operation to move the Buk missile launcher back to Russia after it shot down MH17. In August 2014 the Kremlin sacked him from command of rebel-held territory. A radical nationalist, he has criticised Putin for failing to carry out a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Of the Dutch charges against him, he says: “The only thing I can say is the rebels did not shoot down the Boeing.”

Sergey Dubinskiy

Dubinsky was an undercover officer with Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency. He ran an analogous operation within the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), called the GRU DNR. Although formally separate from Moscow, the body closely coordinated its effort with the Russian GRU. It is alleged that it was Dubinsky who asked for the Buk missile launcher to be delivered to rebel forces near the city of Snizhne, in the Donetsk region. He personally coordinated the Buk’s arrival on 17 July 2014 when it shot down MH17, according to intercepted phone calls. Prosecutors allege that Dubinsky was involved in the operation to hide the anti-aircraft system and to smuggle it back to Russia. He has previously said he does not believe in the objectivity of the Dutch investigation.

Oleg Pulatov

Pulatov was a former solider in the GRU’s special forces spetsnaz unit. He served as Dubinskiy’s No 2 within the GRU DNR. He was previously a lieutenant colonel in Russia’s armed forces. Phone intercepts appear to place Pulatov in eastern Ukraine when MH17 was shot down. Investigators accused him of escorting the Buk missile launcher to the spot where it fired its missile just south of Snizhne. Unlike the other defendants, he is being represented by a defence team. He has not commented on the allegations against him.

Leonid Kharchenko

Kharchenko led a military combat unit in the city of Donetsk, a key rebel hub. He was subordinate to the three Russians – Girkin, Dubinskiy and Pulatov – and is the only Ukrainian to have been charged so far by the Dutch-led joint investigation team. When MH17 was shot down he was the head of the Krot Reconnaissance Battalion of the GRU DNR’s second department. Dutch investigators allege that he was involved in coordinating the transport of the Buk on a low-loader from Donetsk to the launch site, and its removal back to Russia. He has not commented on the allegations against him. Luke Harding

Russia does not allow extradition of its citizens, and none of the men appeared in court on Monday. Pulatov has appointed two Dutch lawyers, who first presented to the court in January. “They have had but a brief space of time to prepare for this hearing,” Steenhuis said.

Nine lawyers have been hired to represent some of the victims and their families They also have the right to speak in court, alongside public prosecutors and the defence.

The trial, which will also include testimony from the family of the victims, is expected to last several months. Lawyers will pore over a case file that already stands at 36,000 pages, and many digital pieces of evidence. Forty-nine relatives have said they wish to address the court and 82 will give written statements on how the death of their loved ones has affected their lives. More may decide to give written or oral statements.

Liz Mayne has written a statement describing how the death of her son Richard, a 20-year student at Leeds University on his way to Australia, has “completely broken” her family.

Richard’s father, Simon, said Monday’s court session was the beginning of a process that could last 30 years. He said the political state of Russia a decade in the future was unknowable. “It is important to establish the facts now. The trial will reveal the chain of command right back to the Kremlin. That may one day become important,” he said.

Eighty-four relatives have exercised their right under Dutch law to seek compensation.

The prosecutor Ward Ferdinandusse said the four defendants had “noted with delight” that a plane had been shot down. “We do not think that these defendants pressed the button that launched the Buk missile,” he said. “However we do think that they played a significant coordinating role in the transportation and positioning of the Buk-Telar and its removal back to Russia, making them so closely involved that they can be held responsible under criminal law for the downing of flight MH17.”

Ferdinandusse said it was perfectly conceivable the men had intended to shoot down a Ukrainian military jet, but that did not exclude prosecution or entitle them to claim combat immunity because they were not regular military personnel. “Whoever systematically violates humanitarian law cannot invoke it to their benefit in a criminal trial,” he said.

Russia has always denied any involvement in the shooting down of the plane.

The Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, accused Dutch authorities last week of orchestrating a media campaign to compensate for gaps in the evidence and assembling facts to fit a predetermined verdict.

The Dutch-led joint investigation team (JIT) said in 2016 that it had found irrefutable evidence the Buk missile had been fired from a village under the control of pro-Russia rebels. The court is also expected to hear details of intercepted phone calls that reveal separatist leaders requesting help from senior Kremlin advisers shortly before MH17 was shot down.

The opening sessions will not get into these details, but will be devoted to what Steenhuis called “mapping out the current state of play”.

In a statement before the opening session, the Nato secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, described the trial as “an important milestone in the efforts to ensure justice for the 298 victims and their families”.

The EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, struck a similar tone, reflecting on a tragedy that caused the death of 298 innocent civilians and calling on Russia to cooperate fully with the investigation.


Jennifer Rankin

The GuardianTramp

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