Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down by a missile in eastern Ukraine nearly six years ago. Families of victims want justice, but the defence says COVID-19 restrictions have made it too hard to prepare the case.
The trial of the 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 resumed on Monday, but the defence demanded more time to prepare the case amid coronavirus restrictions.
Sabine ten Doesschate, a Dutch lawyer representing Russian suspect Oleg Pulatov, said flight bans and other restrictions linked to the pandemic had seriously hampered work on the case, including preventing lawyers from flying to Russia to interview their client.
She said that meant defence lawyers are not yet ready to make preliminary objections such as challenging the Dutch court's jurisdiction in the case.
Judges and prosecutors did not immediately respond to the claims, which could lead to further delays in the trial that began on March 9 but was halted soon after, as coronavirus lockdowns swept through Europe.
Three Russians and a Ukrainian have been charged with involvement in downing the Boeing 777 over eastern Ukraine on its route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur on July 17, 2014.
Pulatov is the only defendant who has lawyers representing him in the trial. He says he is innocent. The three other suspects are Russians Sergey Dubinskiy, Igor Girkin – then the commander of pro-Russian separatists in the Donbass – and Ukrainian national Leonid Kharchenko.
Prosecutors allege the four men on trial were involved in deploying the missile, which prosecutors say was driven into Ukraine from a Russian military base.
While Girkin has admitted "moral responsibility" for the crash, he hasn't admitted direct involvement.
"If you want to talk about some kind of judicial or criminal responsibility, I don’t even stutter about it. This is not the case – militia did not bring down the Boeing," Girkin said.
"I believe that Putin in this situation acted irresponsibly, first in his own words, and through his actions, encouraging the people of Donbass," he added.
Russia has consistently denied any involvement in the crash, and has instead blamed Ukrainian military forces. Ukraine says it never would have weapons capable of reaching the altitude of the Malaysia Airlines flight.
Socially distanced trial
All 298 passengers and crew on board were killed when a Buk missile fired from territory controlled by pro-Moscow separatist rebels shot the passenger jet out of the sky.
"The public prosecution has shown the world that there is a trial," said Piet Ploeg, chairman of the MH17 Disaster Foundation, which represents families of the victims.
"I do hope that the judge has so much evidence on his table that he can only come to one conclusion: guilty."
The trial, which is expected to last at least into next year, is taking place in the Netherlands because nearly 200 of the victims were Dutch citizens. The courtroom is located near the Schiphol airport, from which the doomed flight took off.
Coronavirus social distancing measures were in place there, with judges and prosecutors separated from one another by glass screens.