By Stephanie van den Berg
AMSTERDAM (Reuters) -Dutch prosecutors on Monday began their closing arguments in the trial of suspects in the 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine and said the victims “didn’t stand a chance” once a rocket hit the plane
Three Russian and a Ukrainian – all of whom remain at large – could face sentences of up to life imprisonment if found guilty of helping supply the missile system used to fire the rocket at the passenger jet as it flew from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. All 298 people onboard were killed.
A sentencing demand was expected on Wednesday at the end of a 20-month trial.
In their closing arguments, prosecutors said the plane was shot down by a Russian-made missile. Prosecutor Thijs Berger recalled the moment on July 17, 2014 when Ukrainian air traffic control lost contact with flight MH17.
“At that moment a warhead from a Buk missile detonated to the left of the cockpit, shrapnel and missile parts pierced the left of the cockpit and the accompanying blast does the rest,” Berger said.
“The passengers of flight MH17 didn’t stand a chance,” he added.
None of the defendants were present in court. One suspect, Russian Oleg Pulatov, has sent lawyers to represent him during the trial. The others, Russians Sergey Dubinsky and Igor Girkin and Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko, have never cooperated with the court and are being tried in absentia.
MH17 was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it was shot down by a missile fired from territory held by pro-Russian rebels during fighting with Ukrainian government troops, international investigators say.
After years of collecting evidence, a Dutch-led international Joint Investigation Team (JIT) concluded in 2019 that the missile launcher used to hit the civilian airplane came from a Russian army base just across the border.
The Dutch government has said it holds Russia responsible but Moscow has always denied involvement and has promoted a range of alternative theories, which the international investigators rejected as unsupported by evidence.
On Monday prosecutors went into detail about how they linked certain phone numbers to the suspects and described the situation on the ground in eastern Ukraine in July 2014.
They cited intercepted conversations from pro-Russian separatists who complained they did not have anti-aircraft weapons and were being bombed by the Ukrainian air force.
In a phone call prosecutors say was between suspects Dubinsky and Pulatov, intercepted just one day before the MH17 blast, the man identified as Dubinsky is heard telling Pulatov a Buk missile system should arrive soon.
“Buk is our only hope,” Dubinsky adds, according to the translation provided by the prosecution.
A verdict is likely to be handed down late next year.
(Reporting by Stephanie van den Berg; Editing by Angus MacSwan)