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Defense Requests More Time In Dutch MH17 Trial After Virus Delays

Sabine ten Doesschate and Boudewijn van Eijck, lawyers for one of the defendants Oleg Pulatov, in court on June 8.

Lawyers for a Russian suspect in the trial in absentia of four men accused of downing flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014 have requested more time to prepare their case saying that the coronavirus pandemic has severely impeded their efforts to defend their client.

As proceedings resumed on June 8 after a coronavirus lockdown was eased in the Netherlands, hearings restarted with extra social-distancing measures in place including plexiglass panels separating the judges and lawyers and family members spread out through the courtroom.

Flight MH17 was shot down July 17, 2014, by a Russian-made Buk missile fired from territory in eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian separatists.

The civilian passenger plane was on a flight from Amsterdam to Malaysia when it was shot down.

All 298 passengers and crew were killed.

The victims included 193 Dutch citizens as well as 43 Malaysians and 38 Australians.

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Four defendants went on trial on March 9 over the downing of flight MH17 after nearly six years of research by international investigators, accused of arranging the supply of the Russian missile system used to shoot down MH17.

The four -- Russian citizens Igor Girkin, Sergei Dubinsky, and Oleg Pulatov, and Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko -- remain at large despite the issuance of international warrants for their arrests.

Only Pulatov has appointed defense lawyers to represent him at the trial in the Netherlands.

The second hearing, which was held amid the lockdown on March 23, was immediately adjourned until June 8 in order to give Pulatov's lawyers more time to prepare their case.

Pulatov's defense said on June 8 that the travel restrictions imposed because of the pandemic made it impossible to meet their client and prepare a proper defense. They said they had only spoken with Pulatov "superficially through intermediaries" since the lockdown in March.

The four suspects in the case are shown on a screen as international investigators present their findings to the media in June last year.
The four suspects in the case are shown on a screen as international investigators present their findings to the media in June last year.

Prosecutors said it was possible that Pulatov refused extensive contact with his lawyers, which should not impact the trial's timetable.

"The prosecution says Pulatov chose to limit contact, but that was not Pulatov, that was the coronavirus," said lawyer Sabine ten Doesschate.

The prosecution will spend the rest of June 8 detailing the investigation into the case so far.

Girkin, a former colonel in Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), was the top military commander of a separatist group in eastern Ukraine while Ukrainian Kharchenko was in charge of a combat unit in the region, according to the Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team (JIT).

Dubinsky and Pulatov were connected with Russia's Military Intelligence Service (GRU), the investigators concluded.

Despite evidence that Russia's military was directly involved in shooting down of Flight MH17, the Kremlin has repeatedly denied any involvement.

The Kremlin also denies providing any military or financial support to Ukraine's pro-Russia separatists, despite evidence assembled by the JIT and the Bellingcat open-source investigative group.

With reporting by AFP, AP, Reuters, and dpa
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