SCHIPHOL – A Dutch prosecutor on Monday solemnly read out the names of the 298 people killed in the 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, at the start of the trial of three Russians and a Ukrainian charged with multiple counts of murder.
Relatives of the dead who were in the courtroom bowed their heads and closed their eyes as they listened in silence for the 18 minutes it took prosecutor Dedy Woei-a-Tsoi to read out the names of all the passengers and crew who died when their plane was shot down over eastern Ukraine.
Prosecutors insisted that the perpetrators must be brought to justice, but it remains to be seen if that will happen. As expected, the suspects didn't appear for trial and weren't in the courtroom as Woei-a-Tsoi read out the victims' names.
The trial began with Presiding Judge Hendrik Steenhuis explaining the intricacies of Dutch criminal proceedings to families watching the trial in the Netherlands and on livestreams around the world, and outlining unsuccessful efforts to summon the four suspects to attend. The trial will continue in their absence.
Prosecutors then outlined their case, saying those responsible for downing MH17 must face trial because firing the missile from a field in conflict-torn eastern Ukraine was illegal and those involved had refused to accept accountability.
"Both aspects make this criminal prosecution necessary, in order to establish what actually happened and to punish an act of large-scale, lethal violence that was not simply an error but should never have been planned or carried out in any form or against any target whatsoever at that place on July 17, 2014, said prosecutor Ward Ferdinandusse.
Defense lawyer Sabine ten Doesschate said her client, Russian Oleg Pulatov, insists he is innocent.
“In simple terms, he states he has nothing to do with the downing of flight MH17,” Ten Doesschate told judges.
The courtroom action had been a long time coming for family and friends of those killed on July 17, 2014, when a Buk missile blew MH17 out of the sky above conflict-torn eastern Ukraine.
As the trial got underway, five black-robed judges — three who will hear the case and two alternates — filed into a packed courtroom on the edge of Schiphol, the airport from which the doomed flight took off, heading for Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur.
Among a small group of family members of victims present in court was Piet Ploeg, who lost his brother, Alex, his sister-in-law and his nephew.
“Next of kin want justice, simple as that,” he said. “We want justice for the fact that 298 people are murdered, and this court and the hearings (that) will start today will give us more clarity about what happened, why it happened and who was responsible for it.”
Steenhuis said the criminal file in the case contains some 36,000 pages and "an enormous amount of multimedia files." Examining evidence at trial “will be a very painful and emotional period,” he said.
After a painstaking investigation spanning years, an international team of investigators and prosecutors last year named four suspects: Russians Igor Girkin, Sergey Dubinskiy and Pulatov as well as Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko. More suspects could face charges as the investigations continue.
The defendants took delivery of the Buk system, known as a Telar, “from the Russian Federation and deployed it as part of their own military operation, with the aim of shooting down an aircraft,” Ferdinandusse said. “The crew of the Telar pressed the button, but according to the indictment it was Girkin, Dubinskiy, Pulatov and Kharchenko who directed the employment of this weapon in order to serve their own interests.”
Another of Pulatov's lawyers, Boudewijn van Eijck, immediately called into question the scope of the probe saying that “there are many topics that warrant further investigation.”
Such investigations, which defense lawyers can ask prosecutors to carry out, could significantly prolong a trial already expected to take more than a year.
Russia has consistently denied involvement in the downing, even after prosecutors alleged that the Buk missile system which destroyed the passenger plane was transported into Ukraine from the Russian 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade’s base in Kursk and the launching system was then returned to Russia.
Ferdinandusse said the court's findings could have a deterrent effect.
“When hundreds of innocent people are killed, a world that doesn’t take the trouble to establish the truth and punish the guilty sends the message that its people are fair game,” he said. “Establishing the truth in this case can help prevent fresh violence in the future.”
The case is a regular Dutch criminal trial with an unprecedented number of victims. Legal expert Marieke de Hoon of Amsterdam's Vrije University characterized the case as “both ordinary and extraordinary at the same time.”
Under Dutch law, family members are allowed to make victim impact statements and seek compensation. That will likely happen some time later this year.
“For me, the most important thing (is) will there be enough evidence that the judge can make a conclusion: Guilty,” said Anton Kotte, who lost three family members. “If that's the case, then I will be satisfied, because I know at that moment another level will be attacked — a political level will be attacked worldwide in the direction of Russia.”