5 key questions about MH17 trial

All 298 passengers and crew onboard the Boeing 777 jet died after it was shot down over Ukraine. (Reuters pic)

THE HAGUE: Four suspects are to go on trial in the Netherlands next week accused of playing a role in downing Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine on July 17, 2014.

All 298 passengers and crew onboard the Boeing 777 jet died in the crash, which international investigators said was caused by a Russian-made BUK surface-to-air missile.

Here are five key questions about the trial:

Who is on trial?

Three Russians — Igor Girkin, Sergei Dubinsky and Oleg Pulatov, and a Ukrainian, Leonid Kharchenko — are on trial. All have been linked to separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine.

Girkin, 49, also known by his pseudonym “Strelkov”, is a former Russian spy and a historical re-enactment enthusiast who helped kickstart the war in eastern Ukraine and ruled part of its territory with an iron fist.

Dubinsky, 57, is a former Russian military intelligence officer who also served as military intelligence chief for the separatists.

Pulatov, 53, is a former Russian special forces officer who served as Dubinsky’s deputy.

Kharchenko, 48, also known as “Krot”, allegedly commanded a separatist combat unit and is accused of securing the missile launcher.

What are they accused of?

They are charged with murder and deliberately and unlawfully destroying an aeroplane, leading to the deaths of the 298 people on board.

The four suspects “closely worked together to obtain the BUK missile and set it up with the aim to shoot down a plane”, according to Dutch prosecutors.

Under international law, the men are accused of being “co-perpetrators”, which does not mean they physically pushed the button but rather that their deliberate actions enabled MH17 to be shot down, said Marieke de Hoon of Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam.

If found guilty, sentences can range from 30 years to life as well as a fine of up to €87,000 (RM403,070).

Will the accused show up?

Russia and Ukraine do not extradite their citizens, so none of the four suspects is expected to show up for the trial.

Only Pulatov has appointed a Dutch law firm to represent him, according to media reports.

The trial, however, is being conducted under a combination of Dutch and international law, which enables the suspects to be tried in absentia.

“The Dutch legal system is respected and acts with some authority. It has gone through a lot of judicial scrutiny,” said De Hoon.

Will the families be there?

Yes. Relatives of the victims are expected to play an active role from the start, being present in the courtroom and able to watch proceedings at a secure location away from the media.

Relatives will also be asked later in the trial if they would like to make representations as well as eventually asking the court to award compensation.

Why is the trial in the Netherlands?

The trial takes place at The Hague District Court’s high-security facility next to Schiphol international airport — a stone’s throw from where the ill-fated flight took off.

The trial is taking place in The Netherlands largely because the plane to Kuala Lumpur left from Schiphol and 196 of the passengers were Dutch.

The Netherlands also took the lead in the subsequent Joint Investigative Team (JIT), which also involved Australia, Belgium, Malaysia and Ukraine.

The trial will be conducted in Dutch, with translations available in English.