12 days of defence hearings start in MH17 trial

The start of the defence hearings. Photo: Olaf Kraak ANP

As the war launched against Ukraine by Russia continues, the defence began on Monday in the case of four men accused of murder for the downing of flight MH17 in 2014.

The prosecution has demanded a life sentence against Igor Girkin, Sergey Dubinsky, Oleg Pulatov and Leonid Kharchenko for allegedly helping supply a missile system used by Russian-backed separatists to shoot MH17 from the skies, killing all 298 occupants.

Twelve days of hearings defending Pulatov, the only suspect to mount a defence, began on Monday in a secure courtroom complex near Schiphol airport.

Unusually, the hearings were preceded by statements from the chairman of the court, defence, prosecution and also lawyers representing a council for relatives of victims, who have given impact statements and played a role in proceedings.

Although there had been a chance the case would be postponed because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, all parties said it was important for a resilient defence for the ‘rule of law’ to be upheld.

The chairman of the court said that a fair trial, within a reasonable period of time, was essential in the Dutch justice system. ‘The court extends its sympathy to everyone affected by the violence, also anyone in fear for their family, friends and country,’ he said. “The rule of law in the Netherlands requires that a defendant is tried to meet the standards of a fair trial. Part of that is that a trial takes place in reasonable time.”

Defence lawyer Sabine ten Doesschate said that it was important for their client – who denies the charges – for the trial to continue. ‘Current events in Ukraine are appalling,’ she said. ‘Let there be no misunderstanding: we condemn all unjustified acts of violence and dissociate ourselves from them.’

Meanwhile a lawyer for the relatives’ council said that current events only strengthen the prosecution’s case. ‘The outright Russian acts of war confirm something that was clear to the relatives for a long time: Russia was militarily involved in the war in Ukraine in 2014,’ she said. ‘Now it is a war waged in an undisguised manner for the world to see…Russia is showing its true colours.’

The defence began its case, claiming that in six areas the prosecution’s case fell short. It is arguing that there has been ‘no fair investigation into alternative scenarios’, that the public announcements of discoveries and charges by the Joint Investigations Team have prejudiced public opinion, and that forensic evidence gained from a conflict zone is incomplete and unreliable.


Piet Ploeg, chairman of the Stichting Vliegramp MH17, and one of the relatives present at all hearings said outside the court that the court’s eventual ruling will reflect on the geopolitical context and confirm the Dutch justice system works.

‘There are two questions to be answered: the origin of the BUK system and the firing location: this says everything about Russian involvement. The court needs to give a verdict on the origin of the rocket and the firing location and if is considered to be the field by Pervomaiskyi, an area controlled by Russian-supported separatists, that says everything about Russian responsibility.’

‘Here, we can show that the rule of law works – and we see in Ukraine and also in Russia that the rule of law does not work. This is why it is so important for this case to go on.’

The Dutch government has held Russia responsible for the crash. The authorities in Moscow deny involvement.

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