Fact-finding at the MH17 trial

The joint investigation team working on the case of Flight MH17, the civilian plane downed in Eastern Ukraine five years ago, has charged four people with the murder of the plane’s 298 passengers. Three of the accused are Russian nationals; the Russian constitution expressly prohibits extraditing Russian nationals abroad.
Shaun Walker, the Guardian‘s special correspondent in Eastern and Central Europe, argues that a trial in absentia would still serve a purpose:

However much evidence is presented in court, and even if convictions are secured, Russian authorities are likely to dismiss the conclusions as politicised… It is likely nobody involved in the shooting down of MH17 will ever spend a day in prison.

But the court case will still be important, as the start of a process of closure, first and foremost for the relatives of the victims. It will also be important the court is able to set out all the evidence in public and ensure that… the truth about who was responsible will be preserved for the record.

Although I doubt closure is possible while the perps are at large, the evidence should be laid out in public regardless. However, in a criminal trial – even in a Continental system – the prosecution’s dossier does not automatically become valid evidence: it has to withstand vigorous critical scrutiny by the defense. Without this validation process, the trial can’t properly perform its fact-finding function. A litany of prosecutorial arguments, unchallenged, and a line of witnesses for the prosecution, un-cross-examined, ought to be as convincing to the critical mind as an election in the USSR.

How is it going to work in the upcoming proceedings? Who is going to argue for the defense, and how expertly and aggressively? It would be ideal for the sake of truth-finding if the defendants, although physically absent, were represented throughout the trial by the most competent and committed lawyers available in the Netherlands.

As for my own opinion in case anybody cared to know, I’m in no position to judge if the four people indicted are guilty – or to what degree, or of what exactly. On the other hand, everything I’ve read so far suggests that the Russian state is responsible for the downing of the plane and the deaths of its passengers. Moreover, I believe that, sooner or later, Russia will compensate the victims, unless the country goes the way of the Soviet Union first.

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