MH17 witnesses afraid of assassination, Prosecutor says

MH17, Dutch Safety Board, in 2015
MH17 wreckage shown at the Dutch Safety Board presentation of its report on the 2014 plane crash. October 13, 2015Zachary NewmarkNL Times

Multiple witnesses in the MH17 trial are afraid of retribution or even being assassinated over their testimony in this case, the Public Prosecution Service (OM) said on the second day of the trial against the first four men suspected of involvement in the downing of the Malaysia Airlines plane in Ukraine in 2014. Dozens of witnesses are at risk of being seriously threatened by the Russian security forces, the OM said, NOS reports.

And the fear is not unjustified, prosecutor Thijs Berger said. "One of the people who sent a video clip was visited twice by armed people. After that he fled," he said. The video clip in question showed the BUK rocket used to shoot down MH17 in eastern Ukraine. According to the OM, the threat comes from armed groups in the Ukraine and from the security forces in Russia. "This casts a dark shadow over this process. There are many indications that Russian security forces are trying to thwart the process," Berger said, adding that these forces have previously been tied to murders.

An examining magistrate has given permission to keep the identity of witnesses secret during the process. Suspect Oleg Pulatov, the only one of the four suspects to send lawyers to defend him at the trial, objected to some witnesses' anonymity. This procedure is still ongoing.

The OM wants to know as soon as possible whether Pulatov is willing to make a statement - either a written statement, or by video filmed in Russia. The OM is also investigating whether Pulatov can be brought to testify in the Netherlands without being arrested. "It will be painful for relatives to see him leave the courtroom again as a free man," Berger said. "Nevertheless, for a good trial, that may be the best option. Moreover, he is innocent until proven otherwise."

According to the OM, the investigation the four suspects -  Russians Igor Girkin, Sergey Dubinskiy, Oleg Pulatov, and Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko - is nearly done. The investigators were even stricter than usual in assessing whether evidence in this case is authentic, the OM said.

For example, evidence derived from tapped conversations were checked against telecom data to see if the phone calls really took place. Photos and videos were extensively checked to confirm their location. Where possible, cameras and memory cards were investigated. Meteorological institute KNMI was consulted to confirm whether the weather on the picture or video corresponds with the weather of that day. And investigators checked to see whether the phones of people in the footage made contact with masts in the area. 

The OM also called on the other three suspects to plead their case.