The traumatised families of 298 people killed when Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine in 2014 have demanded justice from Russia as they testified for the first time in the Dutch trial of four suspects.
Relatives of the passengers and crew killed on July 17, 2014, when the Boeing 777 was hit by a surface-to-air Buk missile said on Monday they could not truly say goodbye to their loved ones until those responsible had been brought to justice. The plane was three hours into its flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur above conflict-torn eastern Ukraine when it was shot down.
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Under Dutch law, the relatives are allowed to make a victim impact statement to the court without being asked questions. About 90 people are expected to do so over the next three weeks, some speaking via live video links from other countries.
“I think, probably next to the verdict, it is one of the most important days for the family members because they can speak to the court, but through speaking to the court, they speak to the suspects and also to the responsible people wherever they are hiding,” said Peter Langstraat, a lawyer representing victims’ relatives. “So this is a form of communication with the people who are responsible for this disaster.”
International investigators say a Russian-made missile fired from an area of eastern Ukraine held by pro-Moscow rebels brought down the Boeing 777, but Russia has denied all involvement.
‘I wake up crying’
Ria van der Steen, who lost her father Jan and stepmother Nell on the flight, said she was quoting from the Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn: “They are lying, we know they’re lying and they know that we know that they’re lying.”
“I am full of feelings of revenge, hate, anger and fear,” said van der Steen, who was the first to testify.
“I know they are dead and I will not see them again, but I can’t put an end to this process of saying goodbye, certainly not until those who are responsible for their deaths are found to be guilty for what they have done.”
Van der Steen told the court of recurring nightmares, like walking through the debris after the crash to search for her father.
“When I eventually find him, I have to tell him that he has died, and then I wake up crying,” she said.
Australian Vanessa Rizk, whose parents Albert and Maree were travelling back home from a European holiday, also pointed to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government as part of the “political nightmare” that led to the crash, saying the perpetrators “deserved punishment for their heinous actions”.
“How would the perpetrators feel if it was their loved ones? How would Putin and his corrupt Russian government answer that?” she said via livestream from Australia.
‘I have no children’
A tearful Peter van der Meer told the judges that he had lost his “life and his future” following the death of his three young daughters Sophie, 12, Fleur, 10 and Bente, aged 7, along with his ex-wife Ingrid.
“I hope the perpetrators will feel an urgency to speak up after the story I have told you today, so that they can look in the mirror and don’t have to lie to their children or grandchildren about what they did on July 17, 2014,” he said.
Van der Meer said he stopped celebrating the Dutch holiday of Saint Nicholas after the death of his daughters. “It’s a festival for children. I don’t feel like celebrating it any longer. I have no children,” he said.
While most of the passengers on board were from the Netherlands, there were also dozens of Malaysians and Australians as well as citizens of countries from Canada to New Zealand. Some of the world’s leading HIV experts, who were on their way to an international conference in Australia, were on the flight.
Russian nationals Oleg Pulatov, Igor Girkin and Sergei Dubinsky, and Ukrainian citizen Leonid Kharchenko are all being tried in absentia for murder. Only Pulatov has legal representation.
Head judge Hendrik Steenhuis set September 22, 2022, as a possible date for the verdict in the trial, but also gave alternative dates in November and December of that year.