AMSTERDAM – United by grief across oceans and continents, families who lost loved ones when Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down in 2014 hope that a trial starting next week will finally deliver something that has remained elusive ever since: The truth.
A trial starts Monday in the Netherlands for three Russians linked to their country’s security and intelligence services and a Ukrainian rebel commander. They are accused of mass murder for their alleged roles in shooting down the Boeing 777 on July 17, 2014, as it passed over conflict-torn eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 passengers and crew.
For the families of the victims, the trial is the latest development in a constant stream of news since they received devastating phone calls telling them that their loved ones had been killed.
Silene Fredriksz-Hoogzand’s life as she knew it ended that summer day.
Her son Bryce and his girlfriend Daisy were killed when a missile fired from territory controlled by pro-Russian rebels tore the passenger jet apart, sending wreckage and bodies raining down onto fields of sunflowers in eastern Ukraine. The debris field spread across some 50 square kilometers (20 square miles).
"It never will return to normal,” Fredriksz-Hoogzand said. “There's a life before and a life after."
Pictures and mementos of the young couple still adorn the walls of the house in Rotterdam where they lived with Fredriksz-Hoogzand and her husband, Rob. The couple’s bedroom remains as it was the day they left, heading for a holiday in Indonesia.
On Monday, they will head to a conference center to watch the trial proceedings with other relatives from around the world. The actual courtroom is close to Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport where the flight known as MH17 had taken off, heading for Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia.
The suspects most likely will stay away and be tried in absentia under Dutch law.
The scale of the trial is unprecedented in Dutch law, said Marieke de Hoon, an assistant professor of international law at Vrije University Amsterdam. The international investigation and prosecution are taking place in the Netherlands because most of the victims — 193 people — were Dutch.
“We've never seen anything like this in the Dutch system, it is huge,” she said. There are so many victims, there are so many victims’ relatives, and they all have the right also to be part of the proceedings — to speak, to claim damages if there is a guilty verdict.”
Neither Russia nor Ukraine extradites its citizens. Russia has consistently denied involvement in the downing, even after prosecutors alleged that the Buk missile system which destroyed the passenger plane was transported into Ukraine from the Russian 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade’s base in Kursk and the launching system was then returned to Russia.
That announcement led the Netherlands and Australia to declare that they are holding Russia legally responsible for the downing.
After a painstaking investigation spanning years, an international team of investigators and prosecutors last year named four suspects: Russians Igor Girkin, Sergey Dubinskiy and Oleg Pulatov as well as Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko.
More suspects could face charges as the investigations continue.
Key questions remain over who authorized the missile’s movement and who fired the Buk that brought down MH17. It remains to be seen whether the trial, expected to last months, will provide all the answers.
"My expectations are very low,” Fredriksz-Hoogzand said in her home. “But what we want is to know the truth. What happened, and how? What were they thinking? Who gave the orders?"
That sentiment is shared in Malaysia by the family of Mastura Mustafa, who was a flight attendant on MH17.
“Praise Allah, we hope this trial will give us a conclusive verdict for us to know the truth on who is responsible for the downing of MH17,” said her brother, Thaib Mustafa. “We truly hope that this case will finally come to an end after so many years.”
A clear picture has emerged over years of investigations into what brought down the flight.
A Dutch crash investigation pieced together the wreckage of the plane after it was brought to a hangar on a Dutch air force base and concluded that it was shot out of the sky by a Buk missile.
Separately, a Joint Investigation Team made up of experts from the most-affected countries examined the wreckage and body parts, questioned witnesses and experts, studied radar and satellite images and analyzed data and intercepted communications before indicting the four suspects.
The team said last year there was “almost daily telephone contact” between the self-proclaimed leaders of the pro-Russia rebel Donetsk People’s Republic “and their contacts in the Russian Federation.”
“They spoke with leaders in Moscow, near the border with Ukraine and in Crimea. Communication mostly took place via secure telephones provided by the Russian security service,” it said.
Russia has rejected the investigation as one-sided and put forward its own theories as to what happened, alleging that Ukrainian forces which also have Buk missile systems were to blame.
The opening days of the trial will involve judges taking stock of the investigation so far. Prosecutors will summarize their case, but evidence is unlikely to be examined until hearings later this year.
That is when the victims' next-of-kin will be able to make statements.
Fredriksz-Hoogzand and her husband will have plenty to say when their time comes. It wasn’t until 14 months after the shootdown that they were able to hold a funeral for Bryce and Daisy.
“We had a cremation. They were cremated together, what was left of them,” she said. “That was not much.”
Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur contributed.