Judgement day

Dutch judges will deliver the MH17 trial verdict today. What the relatives of the victims expect from the trial

Judgement day
Judges and lawyers inspect the wreckage of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17. Photo: Piroschka van de Wouw/Getty Images

On 17 July 2014, a Malaysian Boeing en route from Amsterdam to Kuala-Lumpur was shot down by a Buk missile in the sky over Ukraine. All 298 people (15 crewmembers and 283 passengers) on board were killed. Eighty of them were minors.

Today, exactly eight years and four months after the crash, the District Court of The Hague will deliver a verdict in the MH17 case.

We decided to remind our readers of what this trial entails, why it took so long to deliver a verdict and what questions should the verdict answer. For their part, relatives of the victims told Novaya-Europe how they are feeling today and what they expect from the upcoming verdict.

This is not the only legal procedure in relation to the MH17 case. The European Court from Human Rights (ECHR) also initiated a number of court proceedings against Russia and Ukraine. There may be a trial at the International Court of Justice in the future, but for now, this trial at the District Court of The Hague holds the most importance for the relatives: it should finally answer what happened on 17 July 2014.

Igor Girkin (Strelkov), his subordinates Sergey Dubinsky, Oleg Pulatov and Leonid Kharchenko. Photo: a screenshot from the investigation’s presentation delivered to the court

Igor Girkin (Strelkov), his subordinates Sergey Dubinsky, Oleg Pulatov and Leonid Kharchenko. Photo: a screenshot from the investigation’s presentation delivered to the court

There are four men charged in absentia: Igor Girkin, Sergey Dubinsky, Oleg Pulatov (all citizens of Russia), and Leonid Kharchenko (a citizen of Ukraine). None of them showed up in court. Only one suspect, Oleg Pulatov, is represented by attorneys. All four men were put on the international wanted list. The prosecution requested life sentences for each of them.

This case was investigated by the Joint Investigation Team (JIT), which made the following conclusions: MH17 was shot down by a Buk missile launched from the territory controlled by the self-proclaimed Donetsk “people’s republic”. The Buk was delivered from Russia and belonged to the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade of the Russian Ground Forces.

The court will decide today whether this is true or not. It will also determine the role the four suspects played in the MH17 crash.

The court hearings leading up to the verdict were broadcast live to the public.

Why did the investigation take so long? Firstly, the MH17 crash site has been on occupied territory for all these years, which means that it was unsafe to visit.

Secondly, Russia did not cooperate with the investigation — and not only that, it actively hindered the proceedings. The Russian propaganda flooded Europe with disinformation about the MH17 catastrophe. It took quite a lot of time to disprove all the alternative versions of what happened. The court proceedings only started on 9 March 2020.

During the proceedings, the prosecution stated that Russia was forging and hiding evidence in response to requests for mutual legal aid. This is why it is more important for the majority of the relatives to get to the truth than to seek justice.

Yesterday, I called the victims’ relatives, whom I am already acquainted with, and asked them what they expect from today, what their thoughts and hopes are.

Silene and Rob Fredriksz. Photo: Ekaterina Glikman

Silene and Rob Fredriksz. Photo: Ekaterina Glikman

On 17 July 2014, Silene Fredriksz lost her only son Bryce and his girlfriend Daisy. All that remains of her boy is his left foot, burnt to a crisp, that was delivered to them from eastern Ukraine several months after the tragedy.

Today, she will be present in court along with her husband, daughters, father-in-law, and nephew — eleven people in total.

You told me that to you, justice means getting to the truth, not the punishment of the four suspects.

Yes. We know that they will never go to prison. Personally, truth is what matters to me. And thanks to this trial, we have found out part of it already. But we still don’t know why they launched this missile, what were they thinking? Was it a mistake? Or was it deliberate? We hope to get the answers sometime.

Sometime, but not today?

No, this won’t be answered today. But maybe, there will be another case in the future, and these questions will be answered then. Because the investigation is still collecting new evidence and investigating it. One day, they will have enough materials for new proceedings.

Against whom?

Against the rest of them. The team that worked with the Buk, for example: Russian servicemen from the 53rd brigade, from Kursk. This is not the last criminal case. There will be many more.

Hans de Borst near the portrait of his deceased daughter Elsemiek. Photo: Ekaterina Glikman

Hans de Borst near the portrait of his deceased daughter Elsemiek. Photo: Ekaterina Glikman

Hans de Borst lost his only daughter Elsemiek in the MH17 crash. She was only 17 years old. In the run-up to “judgement day”, he was very busy, escorting a group of 80 Australian relatives to the memorial complex for the victims of the tragedy. The Australians flew in to hear the verdict, too.

It’s an important day for me and all the relatives. We have waited so long for this. Usually, I came to the hearings alone. But this time, my friends, my relatives — they’re all here with me. My 88-year-old mother is also coming. Before, she watched the hearings online, but this time, she wanted to come in person. And then, we’ll go to our friends’ house to discuss what happened. This is the plan. Otherwise, I’d end up home, in silence. No, it’s better to talk to someone at moments like this. There will be nine of us.

Is this court hearing important to you?

They’re all important, but yes, this is definitely the most important one. The rest are first and foremost against Russia, but this one is against the four suspects. I don’t care who those four are, but they are also tied to Russia. The answers to the questions on where the Buk was launched from, where it came from, will also be evidence of Russia’s involvement. Considering the big war happening now, this verdict will be interesting for people from Ukraine, too: we’ll hear the first verdict against Russia, which always denies everything, in court. And there will be next steps, too.

And what are you expecting?

I’m waiting in anticipation. We don’t know what the judge will say. He’s independent.

Loes and Robbert van Heijningen. Photo: Ekaterina Glikman

Loes and Robbert van Heijningen. Photo: Ekaterina Glikman

Robbert’s brother Erik, his wife Tina and their 17-year-old son Erik were on board the MH17.

How do you feel on the eve of such an important day?

I’m sad and excited at the same time. It turned out to be harder than I thought. My body, my head started to hurt… But I’ll get through it.

Are you coming with your wife?

Yes. My son said it’s too emotional for him, he’s afraid he won’t be able to handle it.

What do you hope for?

It’s important for us to hear tomorrow what exactly happened there. The most valuable thing the judge can say is that the Buk was launched by Russia, or at least under Russia’s control. If they’ll be able to prove the guilt of any of the four, it will also be good. And the fact that they won’t get their punishment doesn’t matter much. The most important thing for us is to put an end to fake information. And if the judge says there isn’t enough evidence, this will be OK, too. It’s only the first step, after all. If there’s an appeal, and I know there will be one, there will be next steps. We are ready for it. It could spread out for two more years. I also hope that the public opinion and the relatives won’t blame all Russians for the MH17 crash. We’re talking about the Russian state, the Russian military, and not all Russians. I’m seeing that now, when there’s a war going on, the public opinion doubts Russians who live in Russia. I hope this verdict won’t provoke such an attitude. I very much hope that we, the relatives and the public in general, will be able to separate those two things: the state and the people. I am a little afraid we will no longer see the difference. If I’m interviewed after the verdict, I will definitely raise this issue.

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