Emotional MH17 hearing paused after victims' names were read
"Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, to the public session of the Den Haag court at Schiphol. Many have awaited this day for a long time following the terrible disaster in July 2014, when 298 men, women, and children lost their lives," said Senior Justice Hendrik Steenhuis on Monday when he opened the criminal trial into the crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17. "This tragic loss has led to many reactions around the world. It has enormous consequences for the relatives of the victims. I want to welcome everyone, in particular the relatives", the chairman of the court said, as the case against four men suspected of playing a crucial role in the downing of flight MH17 began.
The day was one where the prosecution began to lay out a case that showed the suspects should not be protected from prosecution because though they were fighting against the Ukrainian national military, they were not doing so with the official backing of any nation. The Public Prosecution Service (OM) said the frequent reports of torture, hostage-taking, looting, and the use of prohibited land mines supports this argument. Because of this, the case is a valid criminal prosecution for murder regardless if the passenger jet was targeted intentionally, and the defendants are not entitled to immunity, the OM stated.
"If you shoot at somebody, and miss, and kill a passerby, it is still murder," the prosecution said in court.
The first week of sessions, being held at a special facility in Schiphol capable of handling hundreds of surviving relatives and journalists, was to be an inventory of events and arguments as it was unclear if any suspects would actually attend the hearings, Steenhuis said. "This first phase of the process is intended to organize the state of affairs." Several blocks of time were reserved for the case over the next year and a half to handle the extensive trial, and the schedule was likely to become more clear over the course of this week.
"For the relatives, it will undoubtedly be a difficult and emotional period", the court chairman said. Relatives have the opportunity to speak during the trial. So far 49 relatives have indicated that they want to do so. Another 82 said they want to submit a written statement, which will be read in the court. So far 84 relatives indicated that they plan to claim damages, the court said.
The court chairman stressed that he will make sure this is a fair trial. He asked al parties involved in the proceedings to treat each other with decency and respect. "The views of litigants may be perceived as annoying or offensive by others," he said. "Nevertheless, it is important that these positions can be taken."
The names of all 298 people who were killed when flight MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine, were read aloud in the court room, which visibly affected everyone involved. After the names were read, the court chairman allowed for a short break so that everyone could collect themselves. "I said earlier that the consequences of what happened is almost inconceivable and the silence while the names were read made that abundantly clear," the court said.
The names of the victims are included in the indictment, because the four suspects in this case - Russians Igor Girkin, Sergey Dubinskiy, Oleg Pulatov, and Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko - are charged with murdering them. "They brought a deadly weapon to eastern Ukraine and to the location where a BUK rocket was fired that hit MH17. They also arranged for the weapon to be disposed of afterwards," the Public Prosecution Service (OM) said. The four men are suspected of downing the Malaysia Airlines flight and murdering all the people on board, prosecutor Dedy Woei-A-Tsoi said.
Prosecutor Ward Ferdinandusse said the disaster did not only end the lives of 298 people, but also left many other lives forever changed. "The oldest victim came from Indonesia and was 82 years old. The youngest victim came from Malaysia and had not reached the age of 1 year," he said. "The couple who lost their only child said: 'Death has changed. You serve your days. After you die, you might be with her again.' Another relative said: 'I find everything meaningless and have no energy left. I have lost touch with the goodness of life.' For some this process is a relief, for others an extra burden."
Present in the court room on Monday was two lawyers on behalf of suspect Oleg Pulatov, along with a Russian colleague and interpreter, according to NOS. There were also nine lawyers representing the relatives of victims, fifteen journalists, a sketcher, and a number of relatives. The majority of relatives opted to follow the proceedings via live stream from location in Nieuwegein.
The lawyers representing Pulatov told the court that they are still working through the 36 thousand-page file on this case, and because it is in Dutch, they have not yet been able to discuss the content with their client. The court agreed to their request to let them submit any further investigation request and possibly a first defense in June. Pulatov (55) said through his Russian lawyer that he was not involved in the downing of MH17 and would like to defend himself during the trial. The court took this as proof that he received his summons. "He was therefore aware of the lawsuit and apparently chose not to be present."
The defense present at the hearing countered the earlier OM argument, saying that it will push for an investigation into a looser airspace restrictions in place over Ukraine on July 17, 2014. The attorney suggested that had Ukraine enforced the same minimum altitude as Russia had done, the passenger jet might not have been shot down that day.
The other three suspects did not send lawyers. The court can also not say with certainty whether they received their summons. 49-year-old Igor Girkin was instructed to receive his summons at the Moscow court on December 30th, but he did not appear. A local police officer went to his home, but no one answered. Neighbors told the officer that an elderly woman lived at that address. The Dutch Public Prosecution Service also tried to reach him via Skype an email, but to no avail. Girkin did tell a Russian news agency that he would not appear in court and that the evidence against him is false.
Delivering 48-year-old Leonid Kharchenko's summons was also unsuccessful. At his address, authorities found the door welded shut by a housing association, and local residents said the Ukrainian man moved away six years ago. The OM left letters with information about the criminal case in several places for him, and tried in multiple other ways to contact him - also informing family members and writing about the summons extensively in the media.
Sergey Dubinskiy (57) did not receive his summons either. He was not at his home address, and he twice failed to appear in the Moscow court to collect the documents there. Attempts to get in touch via Facebook, mail and Skype all failed. He did read a message sent by the Joint Investigation Team, and clicked on a link in an email sent by the team. He was also called. The man who answered denied being Dubinskiy, although detectives recognized his voice. Dubinskiy also told media that he will not stand trial and denied the accusations against him.
Despite these three suspects not taking physical receipt of the summons against them, the trial against them can continue. The summons were issued on time and in the right way in Russia and the Ukraine, the court said. And given the media attention to this case, the court considers unlikely that the suspects do not know about it. If the suspects decide to send a lawyer at a later date, that will be allowed, the court said.