By Toby Sterling and Anthony Deutsch
AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – Relatives sat listening with bowed heads and eyes closed, as the names of all 298 victims of a missile strike on a Malaysian airliner were read out in a Dutch court on Monday as the murder trial of four fugitive defendants began.
Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was hit by a surface-to-air missile on July 17, 2014 while flying over Ukrainian territory held by pro-Russian rebels on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.
None of the accused in the disaster – three Russians and a Ukrainian – were present in the courtroom and all four are believed to be in Russia. Only one sent a defense lawyer.
Judges ruled earlier that the men had waived their rights to attend and said proceedings would continue without them.
The mood in the courtroom was somber and hushed as prosecutor Dedy Woei-a-Tsoi read out the names of those who died when MH17 crashed in eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014.
“The silence in this court during the reading of all the names of the victims makes it (MH-17 disaster) clear once again and that means a moment of silence was fitting,” Presiding Judge Hendrik Steenhuis said.
Prosecutors say the suspects helped supply the Russian missile system that downed the plane. The four face preliminary charges of the murder of 298 people and of causing the aircraft to crash, resulting in the death of all aboard.
“Many people have long waited for this day,” Steenhuis said in opening remarks.
“This tragic loss of so many lives has touched many all over the world. The court wants to say it realizes the impact of the loss of so many human lives and that the way it happened was almost incomprehensible.”
The defendants – Russians Sergey Dubinsky, Oleg Pulatov and Igor Girkin and Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko – held senior posts in the pro-Russian militias in eastern Ukraine in 2014.
“It is very important for us because nobody had expected there would be a trial at all,” said Anton Kotti, who lost three family members in the disaster. “We hope the judge gets so much evidence that he can only come to one conclusion: ‘guilty’.”
A Dutch-led international Joint Investigation (JIT) team spent years collecting evidence before issuing arrest warrants for the four suspects last year.
If convicted, the four men could face sentences of up to life in prison. However, Russia does not extradite its citizens, and the Kremlin has questioned both the legitimacy of the international investigation and the independence of the court.
Countries participating in the investigation – Ukraine, the Netherlands, Australia, Malaysia and Belgium – agreed in 2017 to hold trials in the Netherlands under Dutch law after attempts to set up a U.N.-backed tribunal foundered over Russian opposition.
The aircraft’s downing led to sanctions against Russia by the European Union. It also heightened tension between Russia and Western countries who blame it for the disaster.
The dead included 196 Dutch citizens, 43 Malaysians and 27 Australians, among others.
(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch, Stephanie van den Berg, Toby Sterling and Hilde Verweij; Editing by Mark Heinrich)