SCHIPHOL, Netherlands (AP) — Relatives of those killed when Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine in 2014 gathered at a Dutch courtroom Thursday before the verdicts in the trial of three Russians and a Ukrainian charged in the aviation disaster.
The verdict comes more than eight years after the Boeing 777 flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was blown out of the sky on July 17, 2014, killing all 298 passengers and crew, amid a conflict between pro-Russia rebels and Ukrainian forces, scattering wreckage and bodies over farmland and fields of sunflowers.
“The truth on the table — that is the most important thing,” said Anton Kotte, who lost his son, daughter-in-law and his 6-year-old grandson when MH17 was shot down. He said the hearing was a “D-Day” for relatives.
Robbert van Heijningen, who lost his brother, sister-in-law and nephew, called the downing “an act of barbarism” that he could never put behind him, regardless of the verdict.
“I call it a stone in my heart, and stones ... don’t disappear,” he said.
None of the suspects appeared for the trial that began in March 2020 and if they are convicted, it's unlikely they will serve any sentence anytime soon. Prosecutors have sought life sentences for all four. Prosecutors and the suspects have two weeks to file an appeal.
The Hague District Court, sitting at a high-security courtroom at Schiphol Airport, is passing judgment against a backdrop of global geopolitical upheaval caused by Russia's full-blown invasion of Ukraine in February and the nearly nine-month war it triggered.
Hundreds of family members of people killed traveled to the court to hear the verdict, bringing them back to the airport their loved ones left on the fateful day MH17 was shot down.
Dutch prosecutors say the missile launcher came from the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade, a unit of the Russian armed forces based in the Russian city of Kursk and was driven back there after MH17 was shot down.
The suspects aren't accused of firing the missile but of working together to get it to the field where it was fired. They are accused of bringing down the plane and the murder of all those on board.
The most senior defendant is Igor Girkin, a 51-year-old former colonel in Russia's Federal Security Service, or FSB. At the time of the downing, he was defense minister and commander of the armed forces of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic — the region where the plane was shot down. Girkin reportedly is currently involved in Russia’s war on Ukraine.
Also on trial are Girkin's subordinates, Sergey Dubinskiy, Oleg Pulatov, and Leonid Kharchenko, a Ukrainian who prosecutors say was commander of a pro-Russia rebel combat unit and took orders directly from Dubinskiy.
Pulatov is the only one of the suspects who was represented by defense lawyers at the trial. They accused prosecutors of “tunnel vision” in basing their case on the findings of an international investigation into the downing while ignoring other possible causes.
Pulatov’s defense team also sought to discredit evidence and argued he didn’t get a fair trial.
In a video recording played in court, Pulatov insisted he was innocent and told judges: “What matters to me is that the truth is revealed. It’s important for me that my country is not blamed for this tragedy.”