The trial of three Russians and a Ukrainian citizen over the July 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in separatist-controlled eastern Ukraine has opened in the Netherlands.
The four suspects on March 9 were not present in the dock of the high-security court located near Schiphol Airport from where the doomed flight took off, but judges ruled that the hearing could continue in their absence.
In a somber moment, a prosecutor read out the names of each of the 298 passengers and crew who were killed when MH17, flying to Kuala Lumpur, was shot down by a Russian-made antiaircraft missile.
"Many people have long waited for this day," Presiding Judge Hendrik Steenhuis said in opening remarks.
The four men accused of murder -- Russian citizens Igor Girkin, Sergei Dubinsky, and Oleg Pulatov, and Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko -- remain at large despite the issuance of international warrants for their arrest.
The victims included 193 Dutch citizens as well as 43 Malaysians and 38 Australians.
The suspects all held senior positions with Russia-backed separatist militia formations that have been fighting Ukrainian government forces in eastern Ukraine since the spring of 2014.
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.
Despite evidence that Russia's military was directly involved in shooting down MH17 with a missile fired from separatist-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine, 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 Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team (JIT) and the Bellingcat open-source investigative group.
Pulatov, the only suspect whose defense attorneys were present at the trial, denied his guilt, his lawyer, Sabine ten Doesschate, said on March 9.
According to the lawyer, her client decided to defend himself because he insists he bears no responsibility for the MH17 crash and all its consequences.
The other three suspects weren't represented in the courtroom.
On the eve of the trial, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Twitter that he believes "justice will prevail and that those responsible will be held accountable for the deaths of 298 innocent people."
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said on March 6 that the trial was "a very important step toward uncovering the truth and seeking justice for the victims and their survivors."
Rutte also said there will likely be other trials in connection with the MH17 tragedy.
"The investigation into the involvement of other individuals is ongoing," Rutte said.
The governments of Malaysia and Australia also have welcomed the opening of the trial. A Malaysian Foreign Ministry statement said the trial would be "a significant milestone" toward "finding justice" for those killed.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on March 7 that his government "remains steadfast in its commitment to pursuing justice and accountability for MH17."
Dutch-led investigators who probed the incident for several years have charged that the four suspects colluded to carry out the attack, although they did not actually shoot down the airliner.
The JIT also concluded in May 2018 that the Buk antiaircraft system that shot down MH17 belonged to Russia's 53rd Antiaircraft Missile Brigade.
Investigators said in 2019 that there was "almost daily telephone contact" between the Donetsk separatists "and their contacts in the Russian Federation using secure phones provided by the Russian security service."
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova charged on March 6 that an "unprecedented" media campaign in the run-up to the trial was "accusatory toward Russia…and its citizens."
On March 8, relatives of MH17 victims set up 298 empty chairs in front of the Russian Embassy at The Hague to symbolize those killed by the Russian missile attack and to protest what they described as Moscow's refusal to cooperate with the international investigation.
The trial is expected to last through most of 2020.
Dutch authorities have not ruled out the possibility that more suspects will be named in the case and additional charges pressed.