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36,000 Pages, Charges over Messengers, Emotions in Courtroom: Report from MH17 Court Hearings
10 March, 2020
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Hague District Court judges during the first hearing of the MH17 flight crash at Schiphol, Judicial Complex, Netherlands, March 9, 2020 Oleksandra Chernova / hromadske

"Many people have been waiting for this day for years after the horrific July 2014 catastrophe when 298 men, women and children lost their lives. This tragedy has received a worldwide response and has had enormous consequences for the relatives of the dead."

Following these words, Presiding Judge Hendrik Steenhuis greeted all those present in the hall of the Schiphol Judicial Complex and the hearings on the crash of the Malaysia Airlines plane in the sky over the Donbas on July 17, 2014 officially began.

The first day of trial was indeed awaited by all those who had closely followed the JIT investigation for nearly six years. So far, this is only a preliminary hearing, and no one knows the exact date when examination of the case on the merits will begin. But in any case, this is already a transition to a new level. This is Hromadske's report on the results and impressions of the first day of court hearings.

Open Court

On the morning of March 9, there were already a lot of people in front of the Schiphol Complex near Amsterdam, where the MH17 trial was about to start. They were mostly journalists and relatives of the victims. The Hague District Court has reserved this facility because it accommodates many people. The hearings are open and are also broadcast live on the court's official website.

But only a dozen journalists, including Hromadske’s correspondent, were able to enter the courtroom for a few minutes to take photos. The rest of the day, they are following the online broadcast with another almost 400 journalists. Still, the courtroom is cramped.

Hague District Court judges during the first hearing of the MH17 Boeing crash at Schiphol Judicial Complex, Netherlands, March 9, 2020. Photo: Oleksandra Chernova / hromadske

Lawyers for relatives of MH17 crash victims await the first hearing in Schiphol Judicial Complex, Netherlands, March 9, 2020. Photo: Oleksandra Chernova / hromadske

But the Ukrainian delegation was inside. These include Deputy Prosecutor General Gunduz Mamedov, Ukraine's new representative with the JIT, two deputy heads of the Security Service, Ambassador of Ukraine to the Kingdom of the Netherlands Vsevolod Chentsov and Deputy Director of the International Law Department in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Oksana Zolotariova. As Zolotariova later told Hromadske, Ukraine’s representatives were at the visitor bench, where they saw only judges and prosecutors.

On the one hand, this is an important day for the Ukrainian delegation. But on the other, it evokes a great many feelings and memories of all the previous years when we were gathering evidence, working on various processes in the MH17 case. Of course, there were also very moving moments, especially when they read out the list of the persons who were killed,” the Foreign Ministry representative said.

Journalists await the first MH17 hearing near the Schiphol Judicial Complex, Netherlands, March 9, 2020. Photo: Oleksandra Chernova / hromadske

Deputy Prosecutor General of Ukraine Gunduz Mamedov (right) and the Ukrainian delegation near the Schiphol Judicial Complex, Netherlands, March 9, 2020. Photo: Oleksandra Chernova / hromadske

It was one of the moments when emotions took hold: after the names of all 298 murdered were read out, the judge had to briefly adjourn the hearing to let the audience "gather their thoughts."

READ MORE: Longing for Justice. What Will the MH17 Netherlands Trial Bring?

I have already noted that the consequences of this case are simply unthinkable. And the silence that prevailed in the hall when the names were read out demonstrated it very clearly,” the judge said after that. The prosecutor mentioned that "the oldest dead passenger was 82 and the youngest was less than a year old."

Drawing of the artist from the first court hearing in the MH17 case as Judge Heleen Kerstens-Fockens reads the names of all 298 people killed in a plane crash over the Donbas, Netherlands, March 9, 2020. EPA-EFE/ALOYS OOSTERWIJK

The official version of the investigation is that the plane was hit by a surface-to-air missile from the Buk anti-aircraft missile system brought from Russia. During the court hearings, the prosecution brought in a new detail that two Buk systems were brought to the Donbas from Russia but one of them broke down on the road.

Not one of the four defendants in the case is present in Schiphol. They will be tried for killing 298 people and causing the plane to crash.

These are three Russians: Igor Girkin-Strelkov, then-minister of defense of the "DPR"; Sergei "Khmury" Dubinsky, a subordinate of Strelkov, Major-General of the Russian army, who headed the so-called military intelligence of militants; Oleg Pulatov, a subordinate of Dubinsky, headed the second division of the "DPR" military intelligence (GRU). And a Ukrainian citizen Leonid Kharchenko who headed one of the units of the "DPR GRU" and together with Pulatov accompanied Buk to Snizhne where it fired the missile.

Only Pulatov is formally represented at the trial. Of his three attorneys, two are attending the hearings. The defense will be addressing the court starting from June 8. Lawyers should finish studying 36,000 pages of the case by then.

Hague District Court judges during the first hearing of an MH17 flight crash at Schiphol, Judicial Complex, Netherlands, March 9, 2020. Daan Glass (left), Dagmar Koster, Presiding Judge Hendrik Steenhuis and Heleen Kerstens-Fockens (right). Photo: Oleksandra Chernova / hromadske.

"We Want Truth, Not Revenge"

The relatives of the victims will not just be present at the court hearings — 49 of them are ready to address the court. Another 82 want to make a written address, which will then be read out in court. 84 have already informed the court that they will require monetary compensation. Other victims may submit their statements later.

Many of the relatives arrived in the Netherlands a few days before the trial. On March 7, relatives gathered at a memorial to the victims of the MH17 disaster near Schiphol Airport, from where the Boeing took off.

Chairman of the MH17 Fund Piet Ploeg at the National Monument MH17, not far from the Schiphol airport. Vijfhuizen, The Netherlands, March 7, 2020. Piet lost his brother, his sister-in-law, and his nephew. Photo: Oleksandra Chernova / hromadske

Relatives of MH17 victims at the National Monument MH17 not far from the Schiphol Airport. Vijfhuizen, The Netherlands, March 7, 2020. Photo: Oleksandra Chernova / hromadske

Every tree here was planted by relatives or friends of the victims. Each tree has a tablet with the name and age of a victim inscribed on it. People leave mementos, photos, and flowers near the trees. The memorial complex is also covered with sunflowers that symbolize the field where the plane had crashed after being shot down. Some of those sunflowers were grown from seeds taken from the place of the tragedy in the Donbas.

Those who come here to honor the memories of their loved ones say that they want to know all the details of the tragedy, including the higher leadership at the time: what was the cause for the Buk rockets to be fired. Relatives of the victims say that they don’t want a memorial, they just want the truth.

READ MORE: A Dutch Judge Explained How MH17 Hearings Will Be Conducted

I promised myself five years ago that I’d see this case through to the end. Finally, I can say that on Monday (the first day of the trial – ed.) will be that moment, when I finally get close to the end,” said Anton Kotte, a member of the MH17 foundation who lost his son, daughter-in-law, and grandson in the tragedy to the journalists.

Each tree here was planted by relatives or friends of the MH17 victims, and all have a memorial tablet listing the victim’s names and age. The National Monument MH17 is not far from Schiphol Airport. Vijfhuizen, The Netherlands, March 7, 2020. Photo: Oleksandra Chernova / hromadske

MH17 Foundation member Anton Kotte at the National Monument MH17 not far from Schiphol Airport. Vijfhuizen, The Netherlands, March 7, 2020. Anton lost his son, daughter-in-law, and grandson in the tragedy. Photo: Oleksandra Chernova / hromadske

A day before the start of the trial, relatives of victims conducted a now traditional silent protest outside the Russian embassy at The Hague. They put 298 white chairs out in front of the embassy, symbolizing each of the victims. Nearby, they installed a banner in Russia reading ‘Humanity is above politics’ and a tablet reading ‘We want truth only.’

This has been six years of pain and sorrow. I received a [life] sentence. My pain will never go away, and every day I miss my children more and more. For me, its as if this happened yesterday. I can’t put it anywhere, this thing that controls your life,” said protest participant Silene Fredriksz, who lost her son and his girlfriend. Protests like these are common in The Hague, and, according to Silene, Russian embassy representatives have not once commented or reacted.

A traditional silent protest organized by relatives of the MH17 victims by the Russian embassy at The Hague, The Netherlands. March 8, 2020. Photo: Oleksandra Chernova / hromadske

Silene Fredriksz attends a silent protest in front of the Russian embassy at The Hague. She lost her son and his girlfriend on MH17. The Hague, The Netherlands, March 8, 2020. Photo: Oleksandra Chernova / hromadske

“Accidentally Shooting a Different Plane – This Is Also Murder”

Russia denies any responsibility for the tragedy, despite heaps of evidence tying them to the downing of flight MH17. But whether the suspects were actually following orders from Russian military command still needs to be established by the court. But in any case, they’ll be tried for murder. “If you’re shooting someone, you miss and accidentally hit a different plane – this is also murder,” noted a prosecutor.

The suspects will face criminal law, regardless of whether they wanted to shoot down a military plane or a civilian one. The suspects didn’t comply with international law, actually the opposite – they violated it. And they won’t be able to wait for their actions to be excused by international humanitarian law. This means that they can be tried for murder and for the destruction of a civilian plane,” said prosecutor Ward Ferdinandusse during the first court hearing.

READ MORE: Dutch Prosecution Serves Charges on 4 MH17 Defendants

Oleg Pulatov, one of the defendants in the MH17 trial, had defense lawyers present at the hearing. The court took this as confirmation that he had received his summons to court. Pulatov’s lawyer says that their client considers himself innocent. According to the court, the summons officially came to Pulatov’s registered address in Moscow on October 20, 2019, in Dutch and Russian, and a request for legal assistance was given to the Russian prosecutor general's office, which then was transferred to the Russian Ministry of Justice.

Dutch authorities were not able to send a summons to Girkin, as all his possible addresses turned out to be false, and he didn’t go to a Russian court to receive the documents. Prosecutors then turned to all his possible social media and messenger accounts but received no response. Girkin later said, via the Russian Interfax news service, that he will not come to court. Investigators also tried to contact Kharchenko and Dubinsky via messenger, but also without success. On March 9, Dutch news outlet AD, quoting Dubinsky himself, his friends, and his acquaintances wrote that the suspect is living a luxurious life in Russia and isn’t scared of any court cases in the Netherlands. In response to a question of whether Dubinsky is worried about the start of the trial, he said he didn't care about it.

Rescuers search for and carry the bodies of the fallen and of the airplane at the crash site of the MH17 crash, which was shot down in the Donbas, Ukraine. July 19, 2014. Photo: EPA / ANASTASIA VLASOVA

To Close Or Not to Close Airspace?

Another issue that was raised on the first day of hearings by the defense was about Ukraine. They say that the question of closing Ukraine’s airspace was “not investigated thoroughly.”

The court has never considered why Ukraine had not closed its airspace. We’re convinced that this is wrong. The responsibility to limit movement or to completely close the space lies with the government that the airspace belongs to,” says one of Pulatov’s lawyers, Boudewijn van Eijck.

Closing airspace is the right, but not the obligation, of every government, said aviation law expert Andriy Huk on hromadske’s “Right Now” program. And Oksana Zolotaryova, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs representative in the Ukrainian delegation at the trial, called this defense ‘manipulative.’

No wonder the Dutch prosecutor, at the start of their speech, drew awareness to the fact that this is not a case about closing Ukrainian airspace. This is completely different. But this defense tactic means to twist focus and attention from the suspects to other details. We know that the prosecutor will respond adequately to the question of why Ukraine did not close its airspace,” noted Zolotaryova.

A specific plan of who will appear in court and what questions will be looked at won’t appear in the coming days. It’s also unclear how long this process will take, said press judge Yolande Wijnnobel at the end of the first day. She spoke to journalists only Dutch with an interpreter, like the other judges, despite knowing English – due to a feature of Dutch legal procedure.

It is clear that the hall where the trial takes place is reserved from March 9 to March 13, from March 23 to March 27, from June 8 to July 3, from August 31 to November 13, and from February 1, 2021, to March 26, 2021. But experts believe that a final decision may only be made four or five years after the start of the trial. The trial could see new suspects, lawyers, and details at that time.