May 26, 2021 By Peter Dejong and Mike Corder, The Associated Press
GILZE-RIJEN AIR BASE, Netherlands (AP) — Judges and lawyers in the trial of three Russians and a Ukrainian charged in the 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 visited the wreckage of the plane Wednesday at a Dutch military airbase.
Remnants of the Boeing 777 were laid out in a hangar at the Gilze-Rijen Air Base. The cockpit and front section of the fuselage were partially pieced together from wreckage recovered after the plane was shot down over eastern Ukraine as it flew from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, killing all 298 passengers and crew members on board.
Presiding Judge Hendrik Steenhuis led judges into the hangar, where they studied the wreckage. The judges walked around and climbed steps to a raised platform that allowed them to see the inside of the partial reconstruction, which included the remnants of two cockpit seats for pilots. Lawyers visited after the judges.
The plane was blown out of the sky on July 17, 2014, by what an international investigation and a separate Dutch crash probe concluded was a Buk missile. The four defendants, none of whom has surrendered to face justice, are accused of involvement in the attack and the murder of all the people on Flight MH17.
The left side of the cockpit was badly damaged by what prosecutors say was a missile fired by pro-Russian separatist rebels. Prosecutors say the Buk missile was trucked into Ukraine from a Russian military base. Russia denies any involvement in the plane’s downing, which happened during the conflict, then recent, between separatists and Ukrainian government forces in the country’s east.
Families of the victims were not present for the site visit but could follow the events via a livestream. The families had a previous opportunity to visit the wreckage.
Steenhuis said the court realized that the visit would have “an exceptional emotional charge” for relatives of the dead.
“The reconstruction is, after all, a plane in which their loved ones were on their way to a destination they never reached,” he said.
The judge said the aim of the visit was to allow the court to make observations “that at a later stage can be used as probative or exculpatory evidence.”
After a years-long international investigation, prosecutors named four suspects in the downing of Flight MH17: Russians Igor Girkin, Sergey Dubinskiy and Oleg Pulatov, and Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko. Only Pulatov is represented at the trial by lawyers. He has denied involvement.
The preliminary phase of the trial began last year. Next month, the court will begin debating the merits of the case, which is expected to continue into 2022.
Corder reported from The Hague.