The hearings in the MH17 trial resumed at the Schiphol courthouse in the Netherlands on September 6. This is the most emotional part of the trial as the court gave the floor to the relatives of the victims.
More than 90 relatives of the MH17 victims from the Netherlands, Australia, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Canada appeared in court. A 10-day spree of hearings is scheduled to last for the next three weeks. On the first day, nine relatives had the floor. Today, another eight will have their say.
RUSSIA ACCUSED OF LIES IN SOLZHENITSIN'S QUOTE
To this day, the relatives of the MH17 victims had been preparing from the very start of the trial. Ria van der Steen, a Dutch woman who lost her father and stepmother in the MH17 crash, entered the courtroom, dressed in black. She was the first of the relatives of the victims to speak up in court.
But before she could speak, Presiding Judge Hendrik Steenhuis has traditionally announced that none of the four defendants have reported to the hearing. He also noted that the court would examine additional materials provided by the investigating judge, including witness interrogation reports and expert opinions on previously submitted audiotapes.
He also said that the Russian authorities had refused to interrogate the three Russians who are being accused. This is a former FSB officer, the so-called former “DPR Defense Minister” Igor Girkin (Strelkov), General Sergei Dubinsky, who at the time of the downing was a Russian GRU military intelligence colonel and “DPR GRU chief”, and GRU lieutenant colonel Oleg Pulatov. In addition, Ukraine officials reported they did not know the whereabouts of the fourth defendant, Ukrainian national Leonid Kharchenko, who had fought on the “DPR” side. The judge stressed that all four defendants still had the right to appear in court.
Then Ria van der Steen, who is also a member of the board of the MH17 Crash Foundation, was invited to speak. The woman got herself together and tried to pronounce each following word as clearly as possible. Unexpectedly, she started off in Russian, quoting Alexander Solzhenitsyn: "They are lying, we know they’re lying, and they know we know they’re lying." In this way, Ria van der Steen wanted to emphasize that the relatives of the victims know who is to blame for the plane downing.
“One morning in late November 2014, when I returned home, I saw an officer sitting at a kitchen table. I became nervous. But at the same time, I was comforted because I was still hoping for some good news. He reported that my father had been identified, but I couldn’t get his body. A 2cm thin bone from his hand - that's all that's left. It was so weird because he was 6 feet tall. And now such a small particle remained. But I was still relieved," the woman continued in Dutch.
She also showed a photo of her father and his wife and told the court a little about them. Ria van der Steen wrapped up her speech with a video from the national memorial complex erected in memory of the MH17 victims. After her speech, during the break, she shared her emotions, saying she felt wholesome despite the initial anxiety. After all, she started off in Russian because she wanted the Russians to hear her out and to stress that they are lying.
Her Dutch lawyer, Evert Wytema, has been working diligently on the case from the very start. He says his clients have been preparing for their speeches very responsibly and thoroughly.
Wytema, who works with 80 families connected with 35 victims, believes it was a right choice to let Ria open the section where the relatives of the victims spoke. Also, he believes it was a powerful move to kickstart her speech with a Russian passage because it contained a message to the world, including Russia.
Not all relatives of the victims were able to attend the hearing in person, including due to coronavirus-related travel restrictions so some were testifying via video link.
One was Vanessa Rizk, an Australian citizen who lost her parents in the crash.
"To the perpetrators, seven years ago, you broke up my family in the worse way imaginable. Seven years on, I am determined that you will never, ever break my spirit and capacity to live and love, just as my parents would have wanted me to,” the woman said, addressing those guilty of downing MH17. It was her mother's friend who broke the terrible news to her.
The young woman said she rushed to the TV and saw plane debris in a field of flowers. These shots are still haunting her, she added, telling the court she would have never imagined such scenario was even possible.
She is outraged to have lost her parents who loved each other and weren’t guilty of anything, as well as that no one has been punished for this atrocity that has changed her life so dramatically.
PHOTOS FROM THE CABIN
One by one, relatives of the victims came out to speak, including via video link, of how the tragedy changed their lives forever. With tears in their eyes, parents spoke about the children they had lost, others spoke about their parents, siblings, and significant others … Their photos were displayed on screens.
The court allowed that family photos of the victims and their personal belongings be displayed in the courtroom.
Children’s smiling faces and happy families flying on vacation on a plane that was so brutally destroyed...
Peter van der Meyer, a Dutch national, lost three daughters. They were only 12, 10, and 7.
He shared his devastation over the fact that he would never see them get married and that he would never have grandchildren, and that his daughters would never come visit him when he got old.
The man hopes that his revelation will help convince those involved in the tragedy and those who may have at least some additional information about the disaster, to share this information and tell the truth.
After such emotional addresses, some needed emotional support. It was a difficult day in the courtroom – not only for the relatives, but also for everyone attending, including lawyers, prosecutors, judges, and journalists, especially when pictures of the victims’ happy faces were displayed.
During their speeches, relatives of the victims shared some intimate details, told about their loved ones’ dreams and plans that were never to be realized, and how they blame themselves for allowing them to board that plane.
Sander Essers, a Dutch national, during his speech said he could not forgive himself for insisting that his brother take the flight despite the latter being anxious. His brother called 20 minutes prior to the departure and said he had “a bad feeling.” This turned out to be the last conversation between the brothers.
Lawyers for the families of the MH17 victims also had a say in court. After all, not everyone found strength to speak up in person. Lawyer Peter Langstraat read the appeal of one of his clients, who lost his son and grandson. He also showed a photo that was found in one of the phones recovered from the crash site. In the photo, MH17 passengers are preparing for the flight, already in the cabin. Someone is taking their seat, and someone is already in it and ready for takeoff.
The lawyer said his client had asked him to show the photo to let people see the fine line between happiness and tragedy.
He also said this part of the trial was most emotional one, referring to it as “historic.”
This is a very important, but also a very historic day, because never in the Dutch jurisprudence 91 people, families of the victims had say in the criminal proceeding, said the lawyer. He added that for these families, it is an opportunity not only to address the court, but also to appeal, through this court, to those accused. Also, in this way, they turn to other people responsible for the tragedy, whether they are hiding or not. It's always very difficult to prepare oneself for such an emotional moment, because emotions can just overwhelm you, the lawyer stressed.
The MH17 tragedy causes families of the victims not only pain and suffering from grief, but also anger and frustration. After all, those guilty of downing MH17 have not claimed responsibility. Russia has been denying involvement, continuing to spread fake stories in hope to eventually avoid punishment. However, the families of the victims emphasize that they are well aware of who is to blame for the tragedy and express hope that their words will be heard and the perpetrators will be punished.
APPEAL BY DUTCH LAW ENFORCEMENT
A few days prior to the resumption of court hearings, Dutch law enforcement agencies published a public appeal for additional evidence, announcing that the Joint Investigation Team in the MH17 case is looking for photos, videos, and documents from Kursk, the city from where the Buk launcher was deployed. Anyone in possession of reliable information is encouraged to share photos, videos, military orders, and other data about the Buk crew or the command structure that approved the launcher’s deployment in eastern Ukraine, as well as any other valuable documents.
The appeal was posted by Dutch law enforcement agencies, explaining how citizens could share any tips.
“The investigation conducted by the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) shows that flight MH17 was downed by a missile launched from a Buk TELAR missile system that belonged to the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade stationed in Kursk. Perhaps you feel that this fact casts a shadow over the reputation of your city or your army. We are aware of that. But the truth has to be told, even if the truth is inconvenient. You surely realise that we continue our investigation into the crew members and the decision-making as to the deployment of the weapon. Our investigation is already at a very advanced stage, but it is not yet complete. We would like to hear from everybody, also from the Russian soldiers, about what really has happened," the letter reads.
It is noted that the answers to many questions could be found in Russia’s Kursk, the city hosting the infamous 53rd missile brigade.
The final ruling in the MH17 case is expected to be announced in 2022.
The court is currently unable to say how long it will take the judges to study all evidence and draft a verdict.
However, at least three possible dates for the verdict to be announced have been named. This is September 26, November 16, or December 15, 2022.
Iryna Drabok, The Hague
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