By Stephanie van den Berg
Amsterdam (Reuters) -Dutch prosecutors on Wednesday demanded life sentences for three Russians and a Ukrainian charged with murder over the shooting down of a passenger jet over Ukraine in 2014.
They said the defendants, who are all at large, helped supply a missile system that Russian-backed separatists used to fire a rocket at Malaysia Airlines flight MH17. All 298 people on board were killed.
Prosecutor Manon Ridderbeks demanded life terms for all four, named as Igor Girkin, Sergey Dubinsky, Oleg Pulatov and Leonid Kharchenko.
Most of the victims were Dutch nationals. The Dutch government holds Russia responsible. Authorities in Moscow deny involvement.
Outside the courtroom Piet Ploeg, who lost his brother, nephew and sister-in-law in the crash, said he had waited a long time to hear the prosecution makes its recommendation.
“It’s a relief that the prosecutors demanded the maximum sentence,” he told reporters.
Even if the four men were never jailed, “it is just as important that the world knows who was responsible,” he said.
After years of collecting evidence, an international team of investigators concluded in May 2018 that the launcher used to shoot down the aircraft, which was en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, belonged to Russia’s 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade.
Prosecutors said on Wednesday the defendants were linked to Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine and played significant roles in the events that led to the downing of the jet.
Russians Pulatov, Dubinsky and Girkin and Ukrainian Kharchenko have all denied involvement. On Wednesday Dubinsky told Dutch broadcaster RTL that the hefty sentencing demands were “totally predictable”.
“Our guilt has already been determined,” he was quoted as saying.
Lawyers for another suspect, Pulatov, said he followed the prosecution closing arguments via the court’s live stream but did not give his reaction.
Relying on satellite images, social media posts and intercepted phone calls, prosecutors say the four men worked together to get a Buk missile system from Russia into eastern Ukraine to reinforce separatists.
“By shooting down MH17 with a Buk …the defendants used devastating violence. They planned this violence beforehand and they organised it in close cooperation,” prosecutor Thijs Berger said.
In recordings played to the court earlier in the week, men identified by the prosecution as the suspects could be heard discussing moving “our Buk” to a field from where flight MH17 was attacked.
They then celebrated the success of “our boys” when they brought down what they mistakenly thought was a Ukrainian military plane. The target turned out to be MH17.
Prosecutors said they were also trying to identify the people who fired the missile and the Russian officials who sent the Buk to Eastern Ukraine.
The trial of the four suspects started 20 months ago. Only Pulatov has sent lawyers to represent him while the others have not cooperated with the court and are being tried in absentia.
Closing arguments from Pulatov’s lawyers are expected in March and a verdict by the end of 2022.
(Reporting by Stephanie van den Berg; Editing by Anthony Deutsch, John Stonestreet and Angus MacSwan)