The trial of four men accused of murder over the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in 2014 opens in the Netherlands on Monday, even though the suspects are still at large.
It follows a half-decade long fight for justice by families of the 298 people who were killed when the jet was shot down over Ukraine by a Russian-made missile as it travelled from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.
Dutch prosecutors last year charged Russian nationals Igor Girkin, Sergei Dubinsky, Oleg Pulatov and Ukrainian citizen Leonid Kharchenko — all linked to pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine — over the tragedy.
Despite international warrants issued for their arrest, none of the four suspects is expected to attend the high security court, located near Schiphol Airport where the doomed flight took off on July 17 2014.
Head judge Hendrik Steenhuis will start proceedings by checking whether the defendants are present in the courtroom.
If they are not the three-judge panel is expected to continue their case in absentia.
The courtroom is likely to be packed with victims’ relatives, lawyers and journalists from around the world for the opening of the trial, which is expected to last a year, reflecting global outrage over the destruction of the Boeing 777.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said on Friday that the trial was being held in “full independence” and was a “very important step to get to the truth and to find justice for the victims and their relatives.”
More than two thirds of the victims — 196 in total — were Dutch.
– ‘Gaps in evidence’ –
Russia has long denied any involvement in the downing of MH17, and has offered a series of alternative explanations for the plane’s downing.
Moscow again on Friday accused the Netherlands of a “crude attempt to put pressure on the court”.
“In the last days before the hearings everything was done to fill the gaps in the evidence presented and to camouflage the falsification of the facts of this version in advance,” Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said.
Prosecutors say the four men on trial were all linked to pro-Russian separatists on whose territory the plane’s wreckage fell and who were instrumental in bringing the BUK missile system to Ukraine — even if they did not pull the trigger.
Girkin, 49, also known by his pseudonym “Strelkov”, is the most high-profile suspect — a former Russian spy and historical re-enactment fan who helped kickstart the war in Ukraine.
Dubinsky, 57, who has also been tied to Russian intelligence, allegedly served as the separatists’ military intelligence chief and was allegedly responsible for requesting the delivery of the missile.
Pulatov, 53, was an ex-Russian special forces soldier and one of Dubinsky’s deputies who allegedly helped transport the missile system to Ukraine, while Kharchenko, 48, allegedly led a separatist unit in eastern Ukraine and secured the missile launcher.
If found guilty, they could be handed life sentences.
– ‘A bloody shame’ –
The charges against the four men resulted from a dogged international investigation led by Dutch authorities with the assistance of Australia, Belgium, Malaysia and Ukraine.
Investigators say the BUK anti-aircraft missile was fired from rebel territory and was supplied by Russia, while the Netherlands and Australia have said they hold Moscow responsible.
Families of the victims said it was a “very important moment”.
“I hope, I am convinced, we will get all the answers that we have not had for five-and-a-half years,” said Piet Ploeg, head of a foundation for MH17 victims who lost his brother, sister-in-law and nephew on the doomed flight.
“It’s a bloody shame that the four suspects are having a good time and parties in Russia, but we can’t do anything about it, they won’t be extradited. It’s a fact that we will have to deal with,” added Ploeg, who says he will attend every day of the trial.
The EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell also backed the trial, added that it was “vital that we establish the truth and bring those responsible to justice”.
Tough EU sanctions imposed on Russia after the tragedy over its alleged role in the war in eastern Ukraine remain in place.