SCHIPHOL – A Dutch prosecutor said Tuesday that there are “strong indications” Russia wants to undermine investigations into the downing of Malaysia Flight 17 and told judges at the trial of four suspects that many witnesses fear for their safety.
Prosecutor Thijs Berger made the statement on the second day of the trial of three Russians and a Ukrainian charged with the murder of all 298 passengers and crew killed when a missile shot down the Amsterdam-to-Kuala Lumpur flight on July 17, 2014. The suspects weren't present.
Prosecutors allege that a Russian Buk missile shot down the flight from an agricultural field in a region of eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Moscow rebel forces. Russia denies any involvement in the downing.
Prosecutors revealed that one witness in their case is a Russian volunteer with a separatist rebel group who was close to a crossroads in eastern Ukraine near where a Buk missile was fired on the day flight MH17 was downed.
The witness, identified only as M58, said that people present at the launch site were “initially pleased because they were told that a military transport plane had been shot down. However, when the first people returned from the crash site they said that it was a civilian aircraft," prosecutor Dedy Woei-a-Tsoi said.
Berger told judges that there was evidence Russian intelligence agents attempted to hack into the computers of Malaysian and Dutch investigations into the downing of MH17.
“This information casts a dark shadow over these proceedings,” he said. “There are strong indications that the Russian government is very keen to thwart this investigation and that it is not averse to deploying the Russian security services to this end. These Russian security services have been accused of multiple murders in recent years committed in various European countries."
Woei-a-Tsoi, told judges that “every effort will have to be made to hear witnesses safely.”
Prosecutors said Russian interference didn't stop there and accused Moscow of attempting to hide the truth about what happened.
“The fate of flight MH17 has become known as a textbook example of a disinformation campaign by the Russian government,” Woei-a-Tsoi said. “It is clear we have not yet seen the end of it.”
In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined comment on the trial, saying that Russia had not been involved in the international investigation.
Two days of hearings this week took stock of progress in the international investigation. The examination of evidence — likely including a visit to the wreckage of the plane that was pieced together in a hangar on a Dutch military base — could start later this year, or in 2021.
The case was adjourned Tuesday until March 23.
After years of investigations, an international team of investigators and prosecutors last year named four suspects: Russians Igor Girkin, Sergey Dubinskiy and Oleg Pulatov as well as Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko. More suspects could face charges as the investigations continue.
None are attending the trial. Only Pulatov has Dutch lawyers representing him in court.
Pulatov's lawyer Boudewijn van Eijck challenged the assertion that Russia could not be trusted.
“Now, if all that were to be true ... I wonder why the Dutch authorities at the same time when it fits them ask for the cooperation of the Russian Federation,” he said.
About 20 family members were present in the courtroom for Tuesday's hearings and more followed the case at a conference center near the central city of Utrecht via a video link.
Bryan and Lisa Clancy, flew from Australia to be present. Bryan lost his brother and sister-in-law in the downing of MH17.
“We've come here to try and make sure that justice is going to be followed and that the truth comes out as to what actually happened,” Bryan said.
A previous version of this story has corrected the spelling of names in the last two paragraphs to Bryan and Clancy, not Brian and Clincy.