The Hague — The Netherlands will put four people on trial next week over the downing of flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014, giving families hope of justice even if the suspects are not in the dock.
For more than five years relatives have called for the prosecution of those responsible for shooting down the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 with the loss of all 298 men, women and children on board.
The jet travelling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was torn apart by a Russian-made missile over part of eastern Ukraine held by pro-Moscow rebels, spreading bodies and debris over a wide area.
A Dutch-led international probe last year made its first charges in the case, accusing Russians Igor Girkin, Sergei Dubinsky, Oleg Pulatov and Ukrainian citizen Leonid Kharchenko of involvement.
None is expected to be at the high-security court near Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport on Monday, but family members will be out in force for the start of what is expected to be a year-long trial.
“For the next of kin this is a very important moment,” said Piet Ploeg, head of a foundation for MH17 victims who lost his brother, sister-in-law and nephew on the doomed flight.
“We will hear what happened, why it happened, what was the role of the Russian state. I hope, I am convinced, we will get all the answers that we have not had for five-and-a-half years,” he told AFP.
Ploeg, who says he will attend every day of the trial, added: “It’s a bloody shame that the four suspects are having a good time and parties in Russia, but we can’t do anything about it, they won’t be extradited. It’s a fact that we will have to deal with.”
– ‘Some sort of closure’ –
Relatives will be allowed inside the courtroom to watch, while a media centre has been built outside the stark concrete building to house more than 400 journalists from around the globe.
The downing of MH17 on July 17, 2014 horrified the world, with its images of wreckage strewn across Ukranian sunflower fields and some victims including children still strapped into their seats, their faces masks of agony.
Of the dead, 196 were from the Netherlands, and Dutch authorities aided by Australia, Belgium, Malaysia and Ukraine have relentlessly pursued the case ever since.
Investigators say the BUK anti-aircraft missile was fired from rebel territory and was supplied by Russia, while the Netherlands and Australia have said they hold Moscow responsible.
Russia has long denied any involvement.
“We have always questioned the objectivity of the work of the investigative team, as we were deprived the chance to participate in it,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday.
The first week of the trial is expected to deal with so-called “housekeeping” issues rather than hearing evidence, but it will include the crucial detail of whether the suspects will turn up.
One is known to have appointed a lawyer but since neither Russia nor Ukraine extradites its nationals, it is almost certain they will be tried in absentia.
“For the victims there will at least be a decision and the possibility for some sort of closure,” said Marieke de Hoon, assistant professor of international law at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.
– ‘There will be more trials’ –
Prosecutors say the suspects were all linked to the separatists and were instrumental in bringing the missile to Ukraine even if they did not pull the trigger.
Girkin, also known by his pseudonym “Strelkov”, is the most high-profile suspect — 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 and was allegedly responsible for requesting the delivery of the missile.
Pulatov was an ex-Russian special forces soldier and one of Dubinsky’s deputies who allegedly helped transport the missile system to Ukraine, while Kharchenko allegedly led a separatist unit in eastern Ukraine and secured the missile launcher.
Investigators say they are still trying to track the crew of the BUK, which originated from the Russian army’s 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade based in the city of Kursk.
They are also seeking information implicating “high-ranking” Kremlin officials.
“I am convinced there will be more trials in the coming years,” Ploeg said.