Dutch judges will on Monday start hearing evidence against three Russian suspects and a Ukrainian in the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over war-torn Ukraine in 2014.
The trial formally began in March 2020 but has so far been dealing with legal arguments, mainly about the admissibility of evidence in the crash in which 298 passengers and crew were killed.
The four suspects — Russian nationals Oleg Pulatov, Igor Girkin and Sergei Dubinsky, and Ukrainian citizen Leonid Kharchenko — are all being tried in absentia. Only Pulatov has legal representation.
“The court will open the MH17 criminal trial proper and, through examining and discussing the content of the prosecution file, elucidate the key questions which it has already begun to address,” the court said in a statement.
“Was flight MH17 shot down by a BUK missile? Was a BUK missile fired from an agricultural field near Pervomaiskyi? Did the accused play a role in this?” the statement added.
The Boeing 777 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.
All four suspects are accused of being key figures among the separatist rebels battling Kiev.
– ‘Emotionally loaded’ –
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 court said that the “hearing on the merits” will begin Monday with general topics including the investigation by the examining magistrate, followed by three more days of discussion from Tuesday to Thursday.
The prosecution and defence will then have the chance to raise issues during hearings lasting until July 9.
Relatives of the victims will be able to address the court in September, it said.
The judges visited the shrapnel-pierced wreckage for the first time in May in what they described as an “emotionally loaded” day.
Torn shreds of the front of the plane have been reconstructed on a wire cage at Gilze-Rijen air base in the Netherlands.
“We realise that this visit to the reconstruction of MH17 as part of the official criminal process will be very emotionally loaded for relatives,” presiding judge Hendrik Steenhuis said at the time.
“This is a reconstruction of an aircraft in which their loved ones were underway to a destination that they never reached because the aircraft crashed during the flight and all on board perished.”
Pulatov, the only suspect to be represented at the trial by lawyers, said in a video played to the court in November that he had seen no sign of any missile.