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Dutch prosecutors demand life sentences in downing of Malaysia Airlines jet

The ongoing trial and criminal proceedings regarding the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17.
Presiding Judge Hendrik Steenhuis, right, looks at a TV monitor during the trial of four men accused of shooting down a Malaysia Airlines jet over Ukraine.
(Peter Dejong / Associated Press)

Dutch prosecutors Wednesday demanded life sentences for four suspects in the downing of a Malaysia Airlines jet over eastern Ukraine in 2014, saying they caused “deep and irreversible suffering” to relatives of the nearly 300 people killed.

Prosecutors said the four recklessly used a Russian missile to bring down the passenger jet, killing all 298 passengers and crew.

Public prosecutor Manon Ridderbeks made the sentence demand on the third day of presentation of evidence supporting the indictment. The suspects are being tried in absentia.

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“The downing of MH17 with a Buk missile brutally ended the lives of all 298 people on board. Incredibly deep and irreversible suffering has been caused to the next of kin,” Ridderbeks told the court.

Life sentences are rare in the Netherlands. But Ridderbeks said it was necessary in the MH17 downing because of the extreme nature of the crime and to serve as a deterrent.

“It must send an unequivocal international message that aviation deserves the greatest possible protection and that gross acts of violence against it will be punished severely,” she said.

Poland and Lithuania have joined Ukraine to urge stronger Western sanctions against Moscow amid a Russian troops buildup near the Ukrainian border that fueled fears of an invasion.

Prosecutors accuse Russians Igor Girkin, Sergey Dubinsky and Igor Pulatov as well as Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko, who were separatist rebels fighting Ukrainian government forces in 2014, of forming a team that aimed to bring down Ukrainian planes using a missile system trucked in from a Russian military base.

Prosecutor Thijs Berger told judges earlier Wednesday that it was legally irrelevant that the suspects wanted to shoot down military and not civilian aircraft.

“Legally speaking, they were ordinary citizens — they were not allowed to commit any violence,” he said.

The trial is being held in the Netherlands at a high-security courtroom near Schiphol Airport because nearly 200 of those on board were Dutch citizens. The victims were from 16 nations.

So far, tensions between Washington and Moscow over Ukraine have been restricted to a war of words, but could it flare into something more dangerous?

Wednesday’s sentence demand came amid soaring tensions between Moscow and the West over a Russian troop buildup near Ukraine that has drawn fears of an invasion. Russia has denied plans to attack its neighbor.

Lawyers for Pulatov, who is the only suspect being represented in court, will make their presentation to judges in March. Verdicts aren’t expected until September at the earliest.

Prosecutors had spent the previous two days explaining in meticulous detail the indictment and evidence backing it up to the panel of judges.

Prosecutors plotted in detail the route they say the Buk missile took to and from the launch site in an agricultural field near the village of Pervomaiskyi, using witnesses, social media posts, photos, video, intercepted phone calls and cellphone location data.

While Russian state media seek to whip up anti-Western sentiment, the Russian public isn’t spoiling for a fight.

They also discussed the forensic evidence gathered from the wreckage and bodies of victims that were recovered from eastern Ukraine and returned to the Netherlands for examination. Earlier in the trial, judges visited a hangar on a Dutch military airbase where the wreckage is stored to view the mangled fragments.

The prosecutors concluded that the plane was shot down by a Buk missile that belonged to the Russian 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade and that was driven to the launch location “by orders of and under guidance of the suspects.”

The prosecutors also cited tapped conversations between Dubinsky and Kharchenko discussing shooting down what they initially thought was a Ukrainian warplane.

Prosecutors argue that Girkin and Dubinskiy were senior separatist rebels while Pulatov and Kharchenko were their direct subordinates.

“Together they are responsible for the deployment of the Buk [missile] used to shoot down” Flight MH17, prosecutors said in a written summary of their arguments.


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