MH17 trial starts with four accused facing murder charges

Four men being tried in absentia over deaths of 298 on board, in incident during Ukraine war that led to global outrage.

    The trial of four men suspected of involvement in the shooting down of MH17 in July 2014 started in The Netherlands on Monday [File: Dmitry Lovetsky/AP Photo]
    The trial of four men suspected of involvement in the shooting down of MH17 in July 2014 started in The Netherlands on Monday [File: Dmitry Lovetsky/AP Photo]

    The trial of four men suspected in the downing of MH17 started on Monday in Amsterdam, more than five years after the Malaysian Airlines plane was shot down as it flew over eastern Ukraine.

    Prosecutors say the suspects, three Russians and a Ukrainian, helped organise the Russian missile system used to shoot down MH17, a civilian aircraft.

    The suspects, who are believed to be in Russia, face preliminary charges of the murder of 298 people and of causing the aircraft to crash, resulting in the death of all on board.

    None were present at court on Monday and are therefore being tried in absentia.

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    Head judge Hendrik Steenhuis introduced the trial, saying: "Many have longed for this process for a long time ... The next of kin of these 298 deceased enjoy legal rights given to victims."

    MH17 was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur on July 17, 2014, when it was shot down by a missile fired from territory held by pro-Moscow rebels amid fighting in eastern Ukraine. Russia has denied any involvement.

    Barnaby Phillips reports from the MH17 crash site

    A Dutch-led international Joint Investigation Team (JIT) spent years collecting evidence before issuing arrest warrants last year for the four suspects: Russians Sergey Dubinsky, Oleg Pulatov and Igor Girkin, and Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko.

    Girkin has said rebels were not responsible and declined further comment. Others could not be reached for comment.

    Russia still has answers

    Countries participating in the investigation - Ukraine, the Netherlands, Australia, Malaysia and Belgium - agreed in 2017 to hold trials in the Netherlands under Dutch law after attempts to set up a United Nations-backed tribunal foundered because of Russian opposition.

    "The Australian government is determined to get justice for the victims of MH17," Australian treasurer Josh Frydenburg told the media on Monday. "Bringing the alleged perpetrators to justice through an open and independent judicial process sends a powerful message. Australia stands with our Dutch friends and our international partners in continuing with this process to bring justice to the victims of MH17."

    If convicted, the suspects could face sentences of up to life in prison. However, Russia does not extradite its citizens and the Kremlin has questioned the legitimacy of the international investigation and the independence of the court.

    It is possible the suspects may participate via video link. Families of some victims are attending the hearings.

    "We think that Russia still has some answers to give us," Sander van Luik, whose brother died in the crash, said at a protest in front of the Russian Embassy in The Hague on Sunday.

    "I hope, I am convinced, we will get all the answers that we have not had for five and a half years," said Piet Ploeg, who lost his brother, sister-in-law and nephew on the flight and now heads a foundation for MH17 victims.

    "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," added Ploeg, who says he will attend every day of the trial.

    The downing of the plane led to sanctions against Russia by the European Union, which repeated its support for the court this weekend.

    Two weeks have been scheduled for the initial proceedings.

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies