Dutch judges to deliver MH17 trial verdicts: Five things to know

On July 17, 2014, a Thursday, MH17 carrier Boeing 777 took off from Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport and was scheduled to land in Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur the next day.

But the doomed flight was gunned down midair over Ukraine’s Donetsk region, held by Russia-backed separatists.

All 298 people – 15 crew members and 283 passengers belonging to 17 nationalities – on board were killed. Among the passengers were 196 Dutch nationals.

At the time, the pro-Russia rebels and Ukrainian forces were locked in a tense conflict.

Ukraine and the West hold Russia and the rebels responsible for shooting the plane down; investigators have said the Buk missile used came from a Russian military base. Moscow has repeatedly rejected this claim.

The victims’ bodies and fragments of the plane were scattered over the sunflower fields of eastern Ukraine – a region which eight years on is once again a war zone as Russia’s war on its neighbour intensifies.

After a lengthy investigation into the case, prosecutors said the alleged suspects – Ukrainian national Leonid Kharchenko and Russians Igor Girkin, Sergey Dubinsky and Oleg Pulatov – played a key role in supplying the missile which downed the flight.

A Dutch court looking into the criminal trial of the four men began a case in March 2020 and judges are set to deliver the verdict on Thursday, from 1:30 pm local time (12:30 GMT).

Here are five things you should know:

Why is the verdict important?

Brechtje Van De Moosdijk, the spokesperson for the Dutch Public Prosecution Service covering the MH17 case, told Al Jazeera the verdict is important since it marks the first time an independent judgement will be made on what happened to the flight.

“The court is set to answer three questions: One is linked to whether the Russians supplied the missile, the second is linked to where it was fired from and the third is the role of the suspects. These are questions we have been investigating for years and tomorrow, when the judges deliver their ruling, it will be huge and bring justice to the innocent parties,” she said.

Marnie Howlett, political scientist and a lecturer on Russian and Eastern European Politics at the University of Oxford, said the MH17 tragedy is also a reminder that the war in Ukraine has been ongoing since 2014.

“When we see this MH17 verdict, it’s important for us to remember that what is happening in Ukraine even now, is not new. The MH17 being downed and several people losing their lives was already a big sign that a war could occur,” she told Al Jazeera.

“When we look at the news of the verdict and see what’s happening in Ukraine now, we have to remember that this is not only a nine-month conflict but an eight-year-long war,” she added.

Who is accused?

The four men allegedly involved in gunning down the plane have been tried in absentia – a criminal proceeding when the defendant is not present in the court – since they are at large.

At the time, Igor Girkin, whose nom de guerre is Igor Strelkov, was a colonel in Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) and minister of defence in the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR).

Sergey Dubinsky is also a former officer of Russia’s military intelligence, while Ukrainian national Kharchenko was leading a DPR combat unit and reported to Dubinsky.

All three will be tried in absentia.

But Oleg Pulatov, who is a former Russian intelligence officer and Dubinsky’s deputy, has agreed to be represented by his lawyers at the trial.

According to Van De Moosdijk, the prosecutors have demanded long life sentences for the four men who are likely in Russia.

“They are all on a wanted list and can be arrested based on the court’s verdict, as soon as their whereabouts are confirmed. If they are convicted – which we don’t know yet – they can be arrested again to serve their sentence. But as we know, Russia does not allow this in their constitution, making the legal process challenging,” she told Al Jazeera.

Van De Moosdijk said both the prosecutors and defence team could raise an appeal against the court’s verdict if they are not satisfied with the ruling.

“If there is an appeal, that would mean that the entire trial would have to be conducted again with different judges, making the case drag on for many more years,” she added.

According to the Reuters news agency, Pulatov’s legal team has already been arguing that the trial so far has been unfair and not properly examined.

What do the victims want?

Families of the victims have been waiting eight years for this court verdict and Thursday’s decision could bring solace to many, said Van De Moosdijk.

“We’ve been having meetings with the victims’ families from the beginning of the case and have made it our priority to share our findings from the investigation and also made them aware of how the Dutch legal system works,” she told Al Jazeera.

“While many of them are aware that the suspects are at large, the families find it important for the court to establish what happened and hold the guilty accountable.”

Grieving families of the victims from across the world are expected to gather at the high-security court near Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, where the flight took off, to hear the Dutch judges deliver their verdict.

For those who cannot be present, the court has ensured that the verdict, which will be delivered in Dutch, is livestreamed and translated into English.

Moreover, if the suspects are found guilty, the court is expected to announce the final compensation applicable to the victims’ families.

This sum could be between 30,000 to 40,000 euros ($31,000 to $41,500), but the victims’ lawyers have asked for a higher sum, said Van De Moosijk.

Is Russia on trial?

The Dutch court’s MH17 verdict comes at a tense time, with Ukraine continuing to battle a Russian offensive.

Howlett points out that while much of the conversation about the verdict is whether the suspects will be imprisoned or whether Russia will be held accountable, the fact a legal investigation was carried out in the first place is significant.

“Many countries like the Netherlands, Australia, Malaysia and others took part in investigating the case and the legal trial taking place is really important. The fact that external countries have really gone through these processes to try these individuals also shows that the West is interested in Ukraine and that they are backing them in their fight against Russia,” she said.

“While the West does believe in the rule of law, Russia doesn’t uphold it. So the verdict, whatever it may be, will not be upheld in Russia, escalating political tensions. But we have to wait and watch,” she added.

What we can learn from this case?

Eight years on, the MH17 case has significant lessons, according to Howlett and Van De Moosdijk.

“Delivering this verdict is important for the individuals who lost their lives and for their families and countries waiting for justice. But it is also a lesson for the West about the importance of being able to investigate this case freely. This is something Ukrainians and others who have experienced crimes are fundamentally fighting for right now,” Howlett told Al Jazeera.

Van De Moosdijk said: “Five countries cooperating legally in investigating a case can be challenging. But there was good cooperation with every piece of evidence being validated repeatedly and thoroughly.

“In the pursuit of truth, it is important to remember that the process can take very long, with thorough investigations. But in the end, this long process is important not only for victims of crime but for our societies as a whole.”

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