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Victims' names read out in sombre start to MH17 trial

The suspects - three Russians and one Ukrainian - were not present in court but judges decided to continue the hearing, the fruit of a long fight for justice by relatives and investigators since the crash on 17 July 2014.

Magistrates wait, on 9 March 2020 in Schiphol, before the opening of the trial of four men accused of murder over the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in 2014, even though the suspects are still at large. Picture: AFP

BADHOEVEDORP - Bereaved family members listened silently with bowed heads as the names of all 298 victims of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 were read out on Monday at the start of the trial of four men accused of downing the plane.

The suspects - three Russians and one Ukrainian - were not present in court but judges decided to continue the hearing, the fruit of a long fight for justice by relatives and investigators since the crash on 17 July 2014.

The shooting down of the Boeing 777 over Ukraine by a Russian-made missile was an "atrocious disaster", head judge Hendrik Steenhuis said as he declared the trial open at a court near Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport.

"The court realises the impact of the loss of so many lives and the manner in which they so abruptly ended is barely conceivable," added Steenhuis.

Planes taking off from Schiphol roared overhead during the hearing, taking the same route as MH17 did on its way to Kuala Lumpur before it was ripped apart by a surface-to-air missile over part of Ukraine held by pro-Moscow rebels.

But inside the high-security courtroom it was silent during the solemn moment when prosecutor Dedy Woei-a-Tsoi intoned the names of the victims, while relatives listened with their eyes closed.

"I think today is of the highest importance," said Piet Ploeg, the head of a foundation for MH17 victims who lost his brother, sister-in-law and nephew on the doomed flight.

"This is the first day that we will know what happened, who was responsible, why the plane was shot down, and to questions like what was Russia's role."

'HONOUR THE TRUTH'

Dutch prosecutors last year charged Russian nationals Igor Girkin, Sergei Dubinsky, Oleg Pulatov and Ukrainian citizen Leonid Kharchenko with murder and causing the flight to crash.

Prosecutors say all four were linked to pro-Russian separatists on whose territory the plane's wreckage fell near the start of Ukraine's bitter civil war.

They argue the men were instrumental in bringing the BUK missile system to Ukraine from its original base in Russia - even if they did not pull the trigger.

"We have a duty to honour the truth, not just out of duty to the families, but also to do justice to international law," Ward Ferdinandusse, another prosecutor, told the court.

Judges ruled on Monday that proceedings could go ahead "in absentia" against Girkin, Dubinsky and Kharchenko as Dutch, Russian and Ukrainian authorities had tried to contact them by post and by electronic media.

Girkin and Dubinsky had also been quoted by media as saying they did not recognise the Dutch court, the judges said.

"We assume they have waived their right to be present since they do not value the right to be present," Steenhuis said.

The fourth suspect, Pulatov, is being represented by lawyers but was also not present.

"He says he has nothing to do with the destruction of flight MH17," his defence lawyer Sabine ten Doesschate told the court.

'MUST BE HELD ACCOUNTABLE'

Russia has long denied any involvement in the downing of MH17, and has offered a series of alternative explanations for the plane's downing.

Moscow again on Friday accused the Netherlands of a "crude attempt to put pressure on the court" and said it was trying to "fill the gaps in the evidence".

But Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said on Friday that the trial was being held in "full independence" and was a "very important step to get to the truth and to find justice for the victims and their relatives".

More than two-thirds of the victims - 196 in total - were Dutch.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lent his support on the eve of the trial, saying he had confidence in the Dutch justice system and those responsible "must be held accountable".

Girkin, 49, also known by his pseudonym "Strelkov", is the most high-profile suspect - a former Russian spy and historical re-enactment fan who helped kickstart the war in Ukraine.

Dubinsky, 57, who has also been tied to Russian intelligence, allegedly served as the separatists' military intelligence chief while Pulatov, 53, was an ex-Russian special forces soldier and one of Dubinsky's deputies.

Kharchenko, 48, allegedly led a separatist unit in eastern Ukraine.

If found guilty, the four suspects could be given life sentences.

"For me, the most important thing is will there be enough evidence that the judge can make a conclusion - guilty. If that's the case, then I will be satisfied," said Anton Kotte, another family member attending the hearing.

The trial - which is expected to last more than a year - was adjourned until Tuesday.