Missile Must Have Downed Flight MH17: Judges

Presiding judge Hendrik Steenhuis (C), other trial judges and lawyers view the reconstructed wreckage of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, at the Gilze-Rijen military Airbase on 26 May, 2021. (AFP Photo)

Dutch judges said Monday they wanted relatives of victims to finally have "clarity" about the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine as the trial of four suspects entered a key phase.

Some relatives were in court for the start of a week in which judges will at last examine evidence against the three Russians and one Ukrainian, who are on trial in absentia over the July 2014 disaster.

The trial formally began in March 2020 but has until now dealt with legal arguments, mainly about the admissibility of evidence in the crash in which all 298 passengers and crew on the Boeing 777 were killed.

"Up until today no one has come forward and said they are even partially responsible for the crash of MH17," presiding judge Hendrik Steenhuis told the court.

Steenhuis said it was crucial for the evidence to be heard in open court despite the absence of Russian nationals Oleg Pulatov, Igor Girkin and Sergei Dubinsky, and Ukrainian citizen Leonid Kharchenko.

Only Pulatov has legal representation.

"The hearing being public is important to society in general, and to the relatives particularly, that there will be clarity about the result of the investigation after years of investigation," the judge said.

'Such A Large Case' 

Judges said the court will this week look at evidence about three key questions: whether the Boeing 777 was shot down by a Russian-made missile; the location the missile was fired from, and the role of the four suspects in the crash.

The idea that the plane had been downed by a BUK surface-to-air missile operated by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine was the "main scenario", Steenhuis added, but they would also look at theories including that a plane had shot down MH17.

The court would be highlighting key parts of the evidence and not going over every part in court, he warned.

"The file consists of 65,000 pages, and many hundreds of hours of video and audio recordings. It's such a large case it's simply not possible to speak about every detail," the judge said.

The prosecution and defence will have the chance to raise issues during hearings lasting until 9 July.

Relatives of the victims will be able to address the court in September.

The jet was travelling from Amsterdam's Schiphol airport to Kuala Lumpur when it was shot down over part of eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian rebels.

An international investigation concluded that a BUK missile that had originally come from the Russian army's 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade based in the city of Kursk was responsible.

Secure Courtroom

All four suspects are accused of being key figures among the separatist rebels battling Kiev.

Girkin, also known by his pseudonym "Strelkov", is a former Russian spy and historical re-enactment fan who helped kickstart the war in Ukraine.

Dubinsky, who has also been tied to Russian intelligence, allegedly served as the separatists' military intelligence chief while Pulatov was an ex-Russian special forces soldier and one of Dubinsky's deputies.

Kharchenko allegedly led a separatist unit in eastern Ukraine.

Pulatov said in a video played to the court in November that he had seen no sign of any missile.

The trial is being held in the Netherlands, in a secure courtroom near Schiphol airport, because it was the point of departure for the doomed plane, and because 196 of the victims were Dutch.

The judges visited the reconstructed, shrapnel-pierced wreckage at a Dutch airbase for the first time in May in what they described as an "emotionally loaded" day.

BUK Missile Responsible? 

Dutch judges said that the investigation into the crash of flight MH17 over war-torn Ukraine in 2014 showed that a Russian-made BUK missile must have been responsible.

Judges in the trial of three Russians and a Ukrainian over the disaster which killed all 298 people on board the Malaysia Airlines plane started formally setting out the evidence this week.

Fragments analysed at the scene "correspond to a BUK missile" and the investigation showed that "there are no other possible conclusions", presiding judge Hendrik Steenhuis said. 

The judges also showed a video showing a plume of white smoke rising to the sky from a field near Pervomaiskyi in eastern Ukraine at the time the Boeing 777 plane came down.

One witness said they had seen a missile "flying for 20 seconds before exploding next to the cockpit of an airliner", the judges said.

Defence lawyers and Russian officials have sought to argue that there were other possibilities including that the plane was shot down by a fighter jet operated by Ukraine.

All four suspects are accused of being key figures among the separatist rebels battling Kiev. – AFP