AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Dutch prosecutors accused Russia on Tuesday of trying to sabotage the investigation into the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 in Ukraine in 2014, saying this cast “a dark shadow” over the impending trial of four suspects in the crash.
Pre-trial hearings began in Amsterdam on Monday. Prosecutors say the defendants - three Russians and a Ukrainian - helped arrange the Russian missile system used to shoot down MH17, a civilian aircraft.
All 298 people on board were killed. Most of the passengers were Dutch nationals.
“The sum of all the facts casts a dark shadow over this investigation because there is strong indicative evidence that Russian government is keen to thwart the investigation,” prosecutor Thijs Berger told the hearing, part of which focused on testimony by witnesses who have not yet been named.
“Several witnesses in this investigation have said that they fear for their lives if their identities would come to light.”
Lawyers for one defendant protested at the prosecutor’s remarks about Russia, and argued that witness intimidation should not be addressed in open hearings.
MH17 was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur on July 17, 2014, when it was shot down by a missile fired from territory held by pro-Moscow rebels amid fighting in eastern Ukraine.
A team of international investigators in May 2018 concluded the missile launcher which shot down the aircraft belonged to Russia’s 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade.
Russia denies any involvement.
The defendants - Russians Sergey Dubinsky, Oleg Pulatov and Igor Girkin and Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko - held senior posts in pro-Russian militias in eastern Ukraine in 2014, according to prosecutors.
The four face preliminary charges of the murder of 298 people and of causing the aircraft to crash. The suspects are believed to be in Russia and are not expected to attend.
On Monday, judges decided the trial would continue with the suspects absent.
Only Pulatov has appointed defence lawyers. Defence lawyer Sabine ten Doesschate told the court on Tuesday that her client “has nothing whatsoever to do” with the plane’s downing.
She said Pulatov has not decided whether he might give the court a statement.
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 Netherlands and Australia have said they hold Russia responsible for the crash.
A second defence lawyer, Boudewijn van Eijck, criticized the prosecutor’s statements about Russia as “sailing a little too close to the wind.” He said that possible defence witnesses could be influenced by such comments about intimidation.
“We regret that this has been discussed publicly,” he said.
Van Eijck also questioned prosecution accusations that Russia had mounted a disinformation campaign about the crash and tried to undermine the investigation.
“The Russian Federation has cooperated in the release of judicial documents,” Van Eijck said. “Everything that was asked of the Russian Federation...was delivered.”
Prosecutors said one witness had already been given protection. He was described as M58, a Russian national who had volunteered to join Ukrainian rebels.
Prosecutor Dedy Woei-a-Tsoi said M58’s statement was that he had been near the site of the missile launcher at the time the fatal missile was launched, assigned to help guard it. She said the witness gave evidence that Russian military personnel and separatists at the scene were “initially pleased” as they were told shot they had down a military transport plane.
“However, when the first people returned from the crash site they said it was a civilian aircraft,” Woei-a-Tsoi said, discussing M58’s videotaped testimony.
Reporting by Toby Sterling, Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Angus MacSwan