Moscow a threat to MH17 trial witnesses, say Dutch prosecutors

Witnesses ‘fear for lives’ if identities revealed amid trial over downing of Malaysia Airlines flight

 A courtroom drawing shows the reading of the names of all victims of the MH17 disaster at the Schiphol Judicial Complex, in Badhoevedorp, near Schiphol Airport,  the Netherlands. Photograph: Aloys Oosterwijk/EPA

A courtroom drawing shows the reading of the names of all victims of the MH17 disaster at the Schiphol Judicial Complex, in Badhoevedorp, near Schiphol Airport, the Netherlands. Photograph: Aloys Oosterwijk/EPA

 

Moscow has sought to undermine the investigation into the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) over eastern Ukraine in 2014 and also poses a threat to witnesses, Dutch prosecutors said on the second day of pre-trial hearings in the case of four Russia-linked suspects.

“There is strong indicative evidence that the Russian government is keen to thwart the investigation . . . Several witnesses in this investigation have said that they fear for their lives if their identities would come to light,” prosecutor Thijs Berger told the court in Amsterdam on Tuesday, according to Reuters.

“The use of Russian security services to discover the identity of witnesses in the investigation is a very real scenario,” he added.

Three Russians with links to military intelligence – Igor Girkin, the military commander of Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine when the plane was shot down, Sergey Dubinsky and Oleg Pulatov – are facing charges in the Dutch trial.

They are being tried in absentia along with a fourth suspect, Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko, who allegedly fought alongside Russia-backed separatists.

Evidence unveiled

Prosecutors in the Netherlands have so far stopped short of charging Russia with involvement, despite unveiling evidence last year that a Russian military Buk missile system brought into eastern Ukraine in July 2014 was used to down the passenger aircraft, killing all 298 on board.

Mr Pulatov is the only one of the four represented at the trial, and his lawyer has denied all wrongdoing on his behalf. Mr Girkin, in comments to media, has denied that forces under his command downed the plane.

Surviving relatives Bryan and Lisa Clancy, from Australia, arrive at the heavily secured Schiphol Judicial Complex, in Badhoevedorp, near Schiphol Airport, the Netherlands, as a trial over the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 six years ago continues. Photograph: Koen Van Weel/EPA
Surviving relatives Bryan and Lisa Clancy, from Australia, arrive at the heavily secured Schiphol Judicial Complex, in Badhoevedorp, near Schiphol Airport, the Netherlands, as a trial over the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 six years ago continues. Photograph: Koen Van Weel/EPA

According to the investigation, the missile system was swiftly transported back to Russia after the plane was shot down in the early days of a war between Ukrainian government forces and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. The conflict, which has claimed about 14,000 lives, erupted months after Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. On Tuesday, two Ukrainian soldiers were killed and about 10 were injured in a flare-up in fighting.

Family members of the crash victims placed 298 empty chairs in front of the Russian embassy in the Netherlands this weekend to protest at the suspects’ absence from the court proceedings.

Involvement denied

The four suspects are believed to be residing in Russia, which has repeatedly denied involvement and refused to co-operate with the investigation, claiming the process is biased.

Most of the plane’s passengers were Dutch, so the Netherlands was delegated the lead role in the investigation and trial under an agreement with officials with Malaysia, Ukraine, Australia and Belgium.

Ukraine, which had several planes shot down in its airspace by Russia-backed militants in the days running up to MH17’s downing, has co-operated with the investigation.

“Along with partners from Australia, Belgium, Malaysia and the Netherlands, Ukrainian experts have been key to gathering crucial evidence for the MH17 case,” Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in a tweet on Monday.

“I believe justice will prevail and that those responsible will be held accountable for the deaths of 298 innocent people.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020