Relatives of victims of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 have set up 298 empty chairs in front of the Russian Embassy in The Netherlands to protest the Kremlin’s continued refusal to admit its role in shooting down the passenger airliner in July 2014.
The March 8 protest in The Hague was staged a day before a trial is due to begin in the Netherlands against three Russian citizens and a Ukrainian separatist who are charged with murdering all 298 passengers and crew members aboard the ill-fated flight.
"This is for me a very beautiful symbol for 298 people who perished,” said protester Piet Ploeg, whose older brother Alex was killed when a Russian antiaircraft missile struck MH17 in July 2014 while it was flying from the Netherlands to Malaysia.
“They are gone. My brother never returned," Ploeg said. "The idea of the action is to make perfectly clear to the Russian state that they have to cooperate with the investigation."
The Kremlin has repeatedly denied any involvement in the MH17 tragedy – despite dossiers of evidence collected by a Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team (JIT) and the Britain-based Bellingcat open-source investigative group.
Moscow also continues to deny that it has provided any military or financial support to pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine.
The independent investigators determined that MH17 was shot down over separatist-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine by a Russian antiaircraft missile that was sent to help the Moscow-backed separatists fight Ukrainian government forces.
The victims included 193 Dutch citizens, 43 Malaysians, and 38 Australians.
Russia has been held politically responsible by the Netherlands and Australia.
The suspects going on trial on March 9 are Russian citizens Igor Girkin, Sergei Dubinsky, and Oleg Pulatov, and Ukrainian separatist Leonid Kharchenko.
Girkin had been the so-called defense minister of a Russia-backed separatist group that calls itself the Donetsk People’s Republic. The other suspects were members of the formation’s military intelligence unit.
None of the suspects is expected to attend the opening of the trial on March 9.
If they fail to appear and do not send legal representatives, the Dutch court is expected to order that their trial be conducted in absentia.