(This March 6th story corrects number of Dutch victims to 196 from 193 to include dual nationals)
By Anthony Deutsch and Stephanie van den Berg
AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Four fugitive suspects go on trial in the Netherlands on Monday charged with the murder of 298 passengers and crew aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, shot down with a Russian-made missile over eastern Ukraine in July 2014.
Wreckage of the Boeing 777 fell into fields surrounding the Ukrainian village of Hrabove in territory held by pro-Russian separatists fighting Ukrainian government forces.
It was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it was hit by a surface-to-air missile. There were no survivors.
Arrest warrants were issued last year for three Russians and a Ukrainian identified by a Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team (JIT) which spent several years collecting evidence.
The four, Russians Sergey Dubinsky, Oleg Pulatov and Igor Girkin, and Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko, had senior positions in the pro-Russian militias in eastern Ukraine in 2014. The JIT said they had not pulled the trigger, but colluded to carry out the attack.
Girkin, a vocal and battle-hardened Russian nationalist, was minister of defence in the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) in Ukraine. Dubinsky, Pulatov and Kharchenko were members of the separatists’ military intelligence unit.
The defendants are at large and are not expected to show up for the hearings at a high-security courtroom near Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport where they will be prosecuted under Dutch law.
If they do not appear, or fail to send lawyers, the judges could rule that the trial be held in absentia.
They also face preliminary allegations of obtaining a missile launcher with the intent to bring down an aircraft.
Russia has consistently denied any involvement or providing financial or military support to pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine.
President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the Kremlin would wait to see how the trial panned out before commenting, but said Russia had always had doubts about the objectivity of the Dutch-led investigation.
“The court will conduct its work independently,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told journalists in The Hague on Friday. “This is a very important step toward uncovering the truth and seeking justice for the victims and their survivors.”
Rutte said the trial would most likely not be the end of the legal process because: “The investigation into the involvement of other individuals is ongoing.”
The JIT includes judicial authorities from Australia, Malaysia, Belgium and Ukraine, in addition to Dutch police and prosecutors.
The aircraft’s downing led to sanctions against Russia by the European Union. It also heightened tension between Russia and Western powers who blame it for the disaster, which killed 196 Dutch, 43 Malaysian and 27 Australian nationals, among others.
The largest criminal investigation in Dutch history painstakingly reconstructed events leading up to and on July 17, 2014. Police and prosecutors examined tens of thousands of pieces of evidence, including videos, communication tapes, satellite imagery, photos and social media posts.
Among the evidence are images plotting the missile launcher’s journey as it crossed into Ukraine ahead of the disaster. A reconstruction presented by prosecutors showed it returning to Russia a day later with one fewer missile.
Intercepts released in November by the JIT showed two of the suspects had been in contact with Vladislav Surkov, a Putin aide, and Sergey Aksyonov, a Russian-appointed leader in Russian-annexed Crimea, it said.
The communications between the DNR militant leaders and Russian government officials “raise questions about their possible involvement in the deployment of the (missile), which brought down flight MH17”, the JIT said.
Two weeks have been scheduled for the initial proceedings, which could be largely procedural. The trial is expected to run through 2020 and maybe longer.
The JIT concluded in May 2018 that the missile launcher “that took down flight MH17 belonged to the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade of the Russian Federation”. It was based at the Kursk military base, just across the Ukrainian border, it said.
The Russian Defence Ministry said at the time: “Not a single air defence missile launcher of the Russian Armed Forces has ever crossed the Russian-Ukrainian border.”
Reporting by Anthony Deutsch and Stephanie van den Berg; Additional reporting by Andrew Osborn in Moscow; Editing by Janet Lawrence