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Longing for Justice. What Will the MH17 Netherlands Trial Bring?
9 March, 2020
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Traditional silent rally organized by relatives of killed passengers of flight MH17 near Russian Embassy in The Hague, Netherlands, March 8, 2020 Oleksandra Chernova / hromadske

Malaysia Airlines' Boeing 777, flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was shot down on July 17, 2014 over the Donbas. 298 passengers and crew members were killed.

Almost six years later, in March 2020, hearings have begun in the Schiphol Court in the suburbs of Amsterdam. They set out to prove the guilt of the four defendants in the Boeing crash that were announced by the Dutch judiciary in June 2019.

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

Will they get to the truth and how long will it take? What do we even know about MH17? Let’s recall the details of the case.

How the Boeing was shot down and how the crash was investigated

Around 4:20 p.m. on July 17, 2014 near the village of Snizhne in the Donetsk region, a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 flying from Amsterdam crashed on the territory controlled by the militants.

All 298 people aboard -- citizens of the Netherlands, Malaysia, Australia, Indonesia, the United Kingdom, Germany, Belgium, Philippines, Canada and New Zealand -- were killed. The number of Dutch citizens was the highest among them -- 195, which is why this country is leading the investigation into the disaster.

The case is being dealt with by the Joint Investigation Team (JIT), which includes representatives from Belgium, Malaysia, Australia and Ukraine, in addition to the Netherlands. Dutch prosecutors will represent the prosecution's case in the hearings starting on March 9.

READ MORE: 5 Years Since MH17 Downing. Following the Footsteps of Russia’s Involvement

On the eve of the hearings, the JIT was updated, with four Ukrainian prosecutors involved. Bellingcat's international team of independent investigators is also conducting its own investigation.

On October 13, 2015, a Commission of the Netherlands Security Council investigating the crash of a liner published a report saying that the plane was hit by a ground-to-air missile from the Buk anti-aircraft missile system.

In May 2018, an official investigation for the first time confirmed that this "Beech" was brought from Russia. Investigators also released information about the fingerprints of the Russian military on a missile fired from the "Beech", and data that the installation belonged to the 53rd anti-aircraft missile brigade of the RF Ministry of Defense.

Rescuers search and carry bodies of the victims of the MH17 downing in the Donbas on July 19, 2014. Photo: EPA / Anastasia Vlasova

Who Is Suspected and What Is the Evidence?

In June 2019, the joint investigation team named four suspects in the M17 downing case, and in February 2020, the prosecutor's office of the Netherlands charged them and put them on the international wanted list. These are three Russians, former servicemen of the Russian Armed Forces, and a citizen of Ukraine. Namely:

  • Igor Girkin (Strelkov), then "Minister of Defense" of the so-called “DPR”. He was in direct contact with the Russian leadership, and most of the fighters, who are likely to be involved in the downing of the Boeing, were his subordinates. After the crash of the plane, Girkin reported on social networks about the successful attack on the Ukrainian military aircraft and called the catastrophe a “regular birdfall”.

  • Sergei "Khmury" Dubinsky, a subordinate of Strelkov, Major-General of the Russian army, who headed the so-called military intelligence of militants. He, according to investigators, controlled the transportation of the "Buk" to the launch site and participated in its evacuation after the plane crashed. According to Bellingcat, Dubinsky was convinced that a Su-25 military jet had been shot down with the "Buk".

  • Oleg Pulatov (call sign "Gyurza" and "Khalif"), a subordinate of Dubinsky, headed the second division of the "DPR" military intelligence (GRU). He was probably involved in protecting the Buk at the launch site south of Snizhne.

  • Leonid Kharchenko (call sign "Mole"), who headed one of the units of the "DPR GRU" and together with Pulatov accompanied Buk to Snizhne where it fired the missile.

Traditional silent action organized by relatives of deceased passengers of MH17 flight near the Russian Embassy in Hague, The Netherlands, March 8, 2020. Photo: Oleksandra Chernova / Hromadske

READ MORE: Dutch Prosecution Serves Charges on 4 MH17 Defendants

What Does Russia Say About Their Involvement?

The Russian Federation has, for the past six years, denied any involvement in the MH17 catastrophe. When the names of the suspects in the case were announced, the Kremlin called the evidence ‘hearsay’. And the moment that the Netherlands asked for the extradition of Volodymyr Tsemakh, the Russians called it a violation of international normals.

In the fall of 2019, Russia sent the Netherlands an official request to hold the trial in Russia – where the three Russian suspects in the MH17 case reside. The Netherlands refused. The head of the Joint Investigation Team, Fred Westerbeke, noted in an interview with CBS that the Russians had not once helped the international investigation team over the course of five years.

READ MORE: MH17: Locals On The Tragedy

“They should have given us all the information and evidence we needed in this complex investigation. They should have told us on the second day after it happened. ‘We made a mistake’ or ‘We did what should not have happened’,” noted Westerbeke.

Additionally, on the eve of the trial in the Netherlands, local publication De Volkskrant released an article about how Russia has been trying to interfere and mess with the investigation this entire time.

The Kremlin made a sudden statement in the days leading up to the trial. Dmitri Peskov, Russian president Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, stated that Moscow has not trusted the results of the investigation from the very beginning, as they claim the investigation went on without their participation. Peskov added that ‘the Kremlin will analyze the court’s decision on the MH17 case.’

READ MORE: JIT Say They Have Eyewitness to Missile Fired at MH17

Additionally, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs published a statement saying that there was an ‘information campaign’ on the eve of the trial that was specially targeted “against Russia and her citizens.” And that this represents an attempt to pressure the court.

“Over the last few days, on the eve of the hearing, everything has been done in order to compensate for gaps in the evidence base and to hide cherry-picked facts under a pre-selected version. Possibly in order to introduce the thought that the investigation was impeccable, and to pre-determine the verdict and prevent any deviation from the course outlined six years ago,” claimed Russian Foreign Ministry representative Maria Zaharova during a press briefing. 

The Trial in Amsterdam: How Will It Go?

The trial of the MH17 suspects is conducted by The Hague district court. But the physical location of the hearings will be held in the Schipol judicial complex, not far from the Amsterdam airport of the same name. The location, 47 miles from The Hague, was chosen because it can hold a large number of people. As explained by judge Marije Knijff, March 9 saw the first preliminary hearings on the case, during which the prosecutor explained the status of the investigation.

READ MORE: Bellingcat’s Aric Toler On Russian Trail in MH17 Downing

The prosecutor also makes a decision whether further investigation is warranted, as well as whether the investigation has uncovered new suspects or charges. Victims of the tragedy will also be given a chance to speak and to demand compensation from the suspects.

The hearings are held openly, and will be streamed on the official website of the court. Three judges take point on hearing the case, with another two in reserve. The head judge during the trial is Hendrik Steenhuis. This case has even prompted changes in Dutch legislative norms in order to allow part of the hearings to be held in English.
There are two separate charges contained in the case. First, the murder of 298 people on flight MH17, and secondly, responsibility for the attack. It’s hard to say how long this trial may last, though it is clear that the court’s hall is reserved from March 9 to the 13th, then 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.

The judges of The Hague District Court gather for the first hearings on the MH17 case in the Schipol judicial complex. Schipol, The Netherlands, March 9, 2020. Third from the left is head judge Hendrik Steenhuis. Photo: Oleksandra Chernova / hromadske

The case currently has four suspects, though not a single one attended the first day of the trial. Only one of the suspects, Oleg Pulatov, has lawyers – two Dutch and one Russian. Whether there will be any more suspects or lawyers will be clear only after the first hearing.

READ MORE: Netherlands Rejects Russia’s Request to Hand Over MH17 Case

According to Dutch news program Nieuwsuur, the investigation currently has 13 witnesses – though they’ve remained anonymous for security reasons. But judge Yolande Wijnnobel noted that the actual amount of witnesses is unknown.

A Ukrainian delegation will also be present at the trial. These are representatives from the Prosecutor-General’s Office (specifically, deputy prosecutor-general Hyunduz Mamedov, Ukraine’s new representative to the JIT), the deputy heads of the Security Service of Ukraine, Volodymyr Horbenko and Ihor Yanovskyi, Ukraine’s ambassador to the Netherlands Vsevolod Chentsov, and deputy director of the international law department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Oksana Zolotareva. 

Zolotareva told hromadske in a comment that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in the scope of the investigation, coordinating the general work, while the Security Service and the prosecutor-general conducted additional witness interviews, listened to intercepted phone calls, and watched video recordings of the event.

Lawyers for the victims of the MH17 tragedy wait for the start of the first hearing in the Schipol judicial complex. Schipol, The Netherlands, March 9 2020. Photo: Oleksandra Chernova / hromadske

What to Expect

Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Office of the President regard this trial the first step toward establishing justice and holding the guilty accountable.

READ MORE: Investigators Say MH17 Shot Down By Russian Military Missile

“The Dutch court system is effective, independent, and has a flawless reputation evidenced by experience. That’s why Ukraine, following the decision made by the states that partake in the investigation of the MH17 downing, agreed to hand over the criminal proceedings [it started] to the Netherlands, as the country that suffered the most as a result of the plane downing,” the foreign ministry explained.

The German foreign ministry stated that they have been supporting the international investigation since day one and hope that now the guilty will be held responsible. A similar notion was stated by the United States.

READ MORE: Mother of MH17 Victim Shares Grief

“We have the utmost confidence in the Dutch legal system to establish the truth and to do justice in this case. We support the ongoing investigatory work of the Joint Investigation Team comprised of the Netherlands, Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, and Ukraine. We again urge Russia to cease its continuing aggressive and destabilizing activities in Ukraine,” reads the statement made by the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

The relatives of the victims do not expect that the four suspects will serve their punishments but long to know the names of all those who played a role in the catastrophe.

“We understand that it won’t happen. We see photographs of them in Russia, living a good life: smoking cigars and drinking whiskey. We want the court to have enough evidence to state a verdict. I can be angry about the guilty not being put behind the bars, but this won’t help. We don’t want revenge, we just want to stop this from happening again,” says Pete Plug in a comment to Hromadske.

READ MORE: Bellingcat's Toler on Alarming Phone Intercepts Released by JIT MH17 Investigation

Plug is the head of the MH17 Disaster Foundation. In the catastrophe, he lost his brother and his wife and their son.

Pete Plug, the head of the MH17 Disaster Foundation, speaks to Hromadske at the National Monument for the MH17 victims in Vijfhuizen, The Netherlands, on March 7. Plug lost his brother, his wife, and their son to the disaster. Photo: Oleksandra Chernova / hromadske

The first day of the trial revealed that some of the relatives of the MH17 downing victims stated in court that they will demand financial compensation. The head judge, Hendrik Steenhuis, said that he received 84 requests from the relatives.

READ MORE: Investigation Finds Russian Military Officer Is A Suspect in MH17 Downing

/By Olena Kurenkova and Oleksandra Chernova

Translated by Hromadske International