Dutch lawyers representing a suspect accused of downing Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in 2014 said Monday that no witnesses exist who could implicate their client in the incident in which 298 people died.
The case about the ill-fated flight, shot down over war-torn Ukraine on July 17 that year, took on a new dimension as hearings resumed near Schiphol airport to the backdrop of Russia’s invasion into its neighbour almost two weeks ago.
“Not a single witness can testify to our client’s role, position or alleged involvement in the charges,” Boudewijn van Eijck told the judges.
“Nonetheless, the public prosecution thought that even with so little evidence of his involvement he had to be prosecuted and they demanded the highest penalty against him,” Van Eijck said.
Four suspects are on trial: Russian nationals Igor Girkin, Sergei Dubinsky and Oleg Pulatov, and Ukrainian citizen Leonid Kharchenko, accused for their roles in launching the BUK missile that hit the plane over war-torn eastern Ukraine.
Prosecutors called for life sentences against the four men when they closed their case late last year.
The defence opened for Pulatov on Monday, the only suspect with legal representation.
Defence lawyers said they will discuss “alternative scenarios” about how MH17 may have been brought down.
A verdict not expected until late 2022 at the earliest. All four suspects are being tried in absentia.
At the start of the hearing, presiding judge Hendrik Steenhuis expressed his sympathy with Ukrainian citizens.
“The court realises that the question is whether it is appropriate under these circumstances to continue the criminal case,” he said.
“The answer is yes. Four individual persons are on trial, not one state,” Steenhuis said at the hearing, held at a special high-security court close to where flight MH17 took off for a routine flight between Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur.
“What is happening in Ukraine is terrible, we are watching the developments with dismay,” said Sabine ten Doesschate, Pulatov’s other lawyer.
“But every suspect has the right to a fair trial and legal aid,” she said.
The best known of the suspects, 51-year-old Girkin – nicknamed “gunner” – was one of the main separatist commanders at the start of the conflict with the Ukrainian army.
Dubinsky, 57, is said to be linked to Russian military intelligence, while Pulatov, 53, is a former member of the Russian special forces and Dubinsky’s deputy.
Kharchenko, 48, is believed to have led a separatist unit in eastern Ukraine.
All four men deny any involvement in the downing of the plane.