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MH17 trial resumes in the Netherlands

June 8, 2020

Lawyers defending four former pro-Russia militia members, who are not present in court, claim coronavirus travel restrictions have hampered their case and are requesting more time to prepare.

Empty chairs in the Hauge symbolize MH17 victims
Image: DW/Maxim Drabok

The trial of three Russians and a Ukrainian charged with murder for shooting down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in July 2014 resumed on Monday in the Netherlands, following a nearly three-month delay in proceedings owing to the coronavirus pandemic.

During a public hearing with social distancing measures in place, defense lawyers argued that they needed more time to prepare, as coronavirus travel restrictions "had a major impact" on their preparation for the case.

"The head start of the public prosecutor, who has been investigating for almost six years, cannot be made up in three months," a Dutch lawyer for one of the defendants, Sabine ten Doesschate, told the court. 

Judges and prosecutors did not immediately respond to the defense claims, which could lead to further delays in the trial. The proceedings are expected to last until next year, and follow a six-year investigation by an international team from the Netherlands, Belgium, Australia, Ukraine and Malaysia.

All 298 people on board the Malaysian Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur were killed. According to the investigators' findings, a Buk anti-aircraft missile was fired from territory controlled by pro-Moscow separatist rebels and blew the Boeing 777 out of the sky. The Netherlands holds Russia responsible, although the Kremlin has consistently denied involvement.

Read moreMH17 trial: What you need to know

Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 flight crashes in east Ukraine
Wreckage of the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 shot down on July 14; 2014 in eastern Ukraine's Donestk regionImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Z. Dzhavakhadze

Defendants tried in absentia 

According to prosecutors, all four of the defendants were high-ranking members of pro-Russian militias in eastern Ukraine in 2014. They face preliminary charges of murder and of causing an aircraft to crash.

However, none of the defendants — Russians Sergey Dubinsky, Oleg Pulatov and Igor Girkin and Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko — have been handed over to investigators. Russia does not extradite its citizens and the Ukrainian Kharchenko has possibly gained a Russian passport.

Pulatov is the only defendant who has appointed a defense team, and all the defendants are being tried in absentia. More suspects could face charges in the future as an international team of investigators continues the long-running probe.

Read moreOpinion: Specter of MH17 haunts Kremlin

Ten Doesschate, who represents Pulatov, said she was unable to properly interview her client, and therefore could not make preliminary objections, such as challenging the Dutch court's jurisdiction in the case.

"It is absolutely impossible to discuss such a large and complex criminal file on the phone via an interpreter," she said.

Nearly 200 of MH17 victims were Dutch, which is why the defendants are being tried in the Netherlands.

wmr/msh (AP, Reuters)