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13th Aug 2022

Dutch trial spotlights Russia's role in MH17 tragedy

  • Flowers outside Schiphol airport in Amsterdam, where MH17 took off, in August 2014 (Photo: Roman Boed)

A Dutch trial of four men accused of shooting down flight MH17 six years ago has put the spotlight back on Russia's covert war in east Ukraine.

"Many people have long waited for this day. This tragic loss of so many lives has touched many all over the world," the presiding judge, Hendrik Steenhuis, said on Monday (9 March) at the opening of the proceedings in Amsterdam.

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"The loss of so many lives and the manner in which they so abruptly ended is barely conceivable," he added.

The four men accused of the mass murder, three Russians (Igor Girkin, Sergey Dubinskiy, and Oleg Pulatov) and a Ukrainian (Leonid Kharchenko) were not present and were believed to be in hiding in Russia.

A separate body, the Joint Investigation Team (JIT), had already concluded in 2016 that the missile which shot down the passenger plane was Russian and had been fired from Russia-occupied Ukraine.

But pinning the guilt on any of the four individuals is expected to take a long time, with Steenhuis noting that there were 36,000 pages of files and other material to comb through.

Russia has long denied having anything to do with MH17 or having troops in Ukraine.

It has also conducted an elaborate disinformation campaign, including to say the JIT and the Dutch court were illegitimate, that Ukraine shot down the plane, and that the whole tragedy was a US fake using dead bodies on board.

Russia's foreign ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, continued to label the accusations of Russian involvement as "propaganda" in remarks to RFE/RFL on the eve of the Dutch trial.

But the trial is to see a painstaking, point-by-point debunking of Russia's alternative theories.

And for their part, the MH17 relatives highlighted Moscow's lack of cooperation by putting 298 empty chairs outside the Russian embassy in The Hague on Sunday.

The EU foreign service, Nato, the UK, and the US also voiced "full confidence" in the Dutch proceedings.

"The Russian state must now cooperate fully with this trial ... there can be no impunity for those responsible for this appalling crime," the British foreign secretary said.

Tony Abbott, the Australian prime minister at the time of the air disaster, was more outspoken.

"With MH17, Russia has demonstrated that there's a touch of evil at the heart of their government. When it comes to ethics and morality, not that much has changed since the worst days of the Soviet Union", he told The Sydney Morning Herald.

For its part, the EU has put two of the suspects - Girkin and Kharchenko - under a visa ban and asset freeze over their role in the Ukraine conflict.

The EU also imposed asset freezes on several Ukrainians in the former regime that was overthrown in 2014 for their part in looting the country.

EU sanctions

Most of those sanctions were recently rolled over for another year.

But two of the alleged Ukrainian looters - former prime minister Mykola Azarov and former energy minister Eduard Stavytskyi - got off the hook last Friday after winning legal appeals in the EU court in Luxembourg on grounds of lack of evidence.

"We can imagine that the evidence provided might not be complete enough in some cases," Ukraine's EU ambassador Mykola Tochytskyi told EUobserver.

"But let me reassure you that in spite of lifting the EU sanctions, Ukrainian law-enforcement bodies will continue respective criminal investigations," he added.

And in the meantime, the fighting continued to rumble on in east Ukraine, where EU foreign service chief Josep Borrell is planning to visit next week.

There were more than 500 ceasefire violations along the contact line, including about 290 explosions in the Donetsk region - a figure close to the 2019 daily average - international monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe said in their last report on Saturday.

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