THE HAGUE: Dutch judges will give their verdict on Thursday in the trial of four men accused of downing Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014, against a backdrop of soaring tensions over Russia's current invasion.
All 298 passengers and crew were killed when the Boeing 777 flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was hit over separatist-held eastern Ukraine by what prosecutors say was a missile supplied by Moscow.
Russians Igor Girkin, Sergei Dubinsky, Oleg Pulatov and Ukrainian citizen Leonid Kharchenko face a life sentence if convicted on charges of murder and causing an aircraft to crash.
But the four suspects all remain at large and have refused to attend the two-and-a-half-year trial in the Netherlands, which followed an international investigation.
Eight years on from the disaster, the region where MH17 crashed has become one of the key battlegrounds in Russia's nearly nine-month-old war in Ukraine.
Bereaved families will travel from around the world to the high-security court near Schiphol Airport, near where the doomed plane took off, to hear the three-judge panel's verdict from 1230 GMT on Thursday.
"If they are guilty, the international community should hunt them down," Evert van Zijtveld, who lost his daughter Frederique, 19, his son Robert-Jan, 18, and his parents-in-law, told AFP.
"I cannot forgive them."
The crash of MH17 caused global outrage, with Ukraine's famed sunflower fields littered with bodies and wreckage. Some victims, including children, were still strapped into their seats.
Prosecutors said the suspects were part of Kremlin-backed separatist forces and played a key role in bringing the BUK missile system into Ukraine from a military base in Russia -- even if they did not pull the trigger.
Defence lawyers for Pulatov, the only suspect to have legal representation, argue that the trial has been unfair.
They say prosecutors failed to prove a BUK missile brought down the jetliner, and have also brought up "alternative scenarios" such as that a Ukrainian jet shot it.
Moscow has denied all involvement.
During the trial, prosecutors relied heavily on intercepted phone calls and mobile phone data allegedly locating the suspects near the launch site or in decision-making centres.
They have also used witness statements -- including an ex-separatist who broke down as he described the "children's toys lying around" at the crash scene -- plus video and photo evidence of the missile's movements.
Forensic material including fragments found in victims' bodies was cited to prove that it was a BUK missile.
Prosecutors say Girkin -- a former Russian spy and historical re-enactment fan who became the so-called defence minister of the separatist Donetsk People's Republic -- helped supply the missile system.
Girkin has recently criticised the Russian military over its handling of the war and reportedly volunteered to fight in Ukraine -- leading some MH17 relatives to hope he may be captured and sent to the Netherlands.
Dubinsky, who has also been tied to Russian intelligence, allegedly served as the separatists' military intelligence chief and was responsible for giving orders about the missile.
Pulatov, an ex-Russian special forces soldier, and Kharchenko, who allegedly led a separatist unit, were subordinates who played a more direct role in getting the missile to the launch site, prosecutors said.
The BUK missile had been identified through images and social media evidence as coming from the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade from Kursk in Russia, the court heard.
The defendants arranged for the missile to be brought in to counter Ukrainian air power, prosecutors said, arguing that under Dutch law it "makes no difference" as to whether they mistakenly targeted a civilian plane.
The trial was held in the Netherlands as 196 of the victims were Dutch. — AFP