Flight MH17: trial to start of four men suspected of downing the plane

The Kremlin has repeatedly denied any involvement

FILE PHOTO: A protest sign stands in front of a row of chairs as family members of victims of the MH17 crash lined up empty chairs for each seat on the plane during a protest outside the Russian Embassy in The Hague, Netherlands March 8, 2020.  REUTERS/Piroschka van de Wouw/File Photo

The first hearing in the trial of four fugitives suspected of downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was set to start in Amsterdam on Monday, more than five years after the plane crashed in Ukraine.

Prosecutors say the suspects, three Russians and a Ukrainian, helped arrange the Russian missile system used to shoot down the commercial aircraft. The suspects, who are believed to be in Russia, are not expected to attend.

MH17, a Boeing 777, 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, killing all 298 aboard, who were citizens of 10 different countries. Russia has denied any involvement.

The war between Kiev and pro-Russian separatists claimed more than 13,000 casualties, according to UN figures.

All four men are accused of being jointly accountable for the attack because they "co-operated to obtain and deploy" the Buk missile launcher in order to shoot down the passenger jet.

Only one of the defendants —Mr Pulatov — will be defended by an international defence team, consisting of two Dutch lawyers and one Russian lawyer.

A Dutch-led international Joint Investigation (JIT) team spent years collecting evidence before issuing arrest warrants last year for the four suspects: Russians Sergey Dubinsky, Oleg Pulatov and Igor Girkin, and Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko.

They are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Mr Girkin has said rebels were not responsible for the plane's downing and declined further comment. Others could not be reached for comment.

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 UN-backed tribunal foundered over Russian opposition.

Prosecutors say the suspects face preliminary charges of the murder of 298 people and of causing the aircraft to crash, resulting in the death of all aboard.

If convicted, the men could face sentences of up to life in prison. However, Russia does not extradite its citizens, and the Kremlin has questioned both the legitimacy of the international investigation and the independence of the court.

It is possible the suspects will participate via video link. Families of victims are expected to attend the hearings.

"We think that Russia still has some answers to give us," Sander van Luik, whose brother died in the crash, said at a protest in front of the Russian Embassy in The Hague on Sunday.

The downing of the plane led to sanctions against Russia by the European Union, which repeated its support for the court this weekend.

A poll conducted in February by the independent Levada Center pollster found 60 per cent of Russians believe Ukraine was behind the down shooting of the plane, while just 10 per cent think Russia was behind it.