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by John Helmer, Moscow 

The trial of the crime of the destruction of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 resumed on August 31 with the demand of Amsterdam and Rotterdam lawyers for the Russian Government to pay blood money to the relatives of the 298 passengers and crew killed when the aircraft was shot down on July 17, 2014.  

Until this moment, the show trial presided over by Judge Hendrik Steenhuis, a former Dutch state tax collector and political ally of Prime Minister Mark Rutte,   had been focused on admitting Ukrainian secret service evidence of the crime and disallowing Russian evidence to the contrary.

The lawyers of the relatives have now joined the prosecution to endorse a guilty verdict in advance for the four defendants – three Russian officers, one Ukrainian – and, in order to pay for the crime, the Russian state behind them. The lawyers are proposing the judge admit into the trial  proceeding evidence by relatives, each taking fifteen minutes, ten testimonies per day over at least three weeks, to advertise the compensation claim and run up the judge’s cash register.

There is a problem, though. In almost four hours of speechmaking, the lawyers revealed that less than half the relatives have signed for the money shot – none of them from the families of the Malaysian and Indonesian passengers and crew killed. Counting the 30% lawyers’ commission, plus costs, this is entirely an operation for the Dutch to enrich themselves at the expense, they are figuring, of the Russian treasury.

There was another problem. The two Dutch lawyers engaged to represent the Russians in the trial to argue the defence of their innocence, made no objection to the victim lawyers’ pitch on the two grounds available from the Dutch code of criminal procedure – inadmissibility as to evidence, prejudice as to proof. The defence lawyers are already making money at the Russian treasury’s expense.

Arlette Schijns of Beer Advocaten, an Amsterdam law firm specialising in injury and accident claims, spoke for what she said were 316 relatives seeking a court order for compensation. She was followed by Peter Langstraat of Moree Gelderblom of Rotterdam. The two firms have been spruiking for clients among the MH17 victim families for several years; read their record.  In 2015 they refused to reveal the number of their client mandates, if any. They were asked again this week to say how many victims they are now representing, and also their nationalities. Again they refused to answer.  

In court this week, left, Arlette Schijns; right, Perter Langstraat. “I am a dedicated lawyer, assertive and tenacious where necessary”, Schijns advertises herself on the Beer Advocaten website with a 20-year old portrait (extreme right).

The full day’s session of the court can be viewed here.  

“The defendants and other people responsible for downing MH17” (Min 1:51:49), Schijns began with an immediate declaration that those charged are guilty, including the Russian military and political commands.  “Noone can evade [responsibility] by pleading orders from above” (1:52:02), Schijns said.  

Schijns also left no doubt that her clients expect the judge to take the same side on the evidence of guilt,  and thus the verdict of the trial; this, they have already decided themselves, before the evidence has been presented and tested. Schijn’s clients are “grateful for the way in which the prosecution so far has carried out its enormous duties regarding investigation…” (Min 1:52:51).

The relatives “all have their own wishes, their own hopes, their own needs regarding this criminal trial”, according to Schijns (Min 1:50:44):  payback is their priority now. “Compensation is not in and of itself the purpose that the relatives are pursuing.    First and foremost, they are seeking some kind of redress for the injustice that was carried out on the seventeenth of July 2014. As much redress as possible. And the payment of compensation is one way in which redress can be achieved. Reparations are not the purpose in themselves. They are a way of achieving a higher purpose” (Min 1:53:10).

“Establishing the facts is of greatest important for the relatives. They want to know exactly what happened prior to and at the moment of the downing of MH17” (Min 1:54:58). But Schijns is already sure of these facts, she told the court. “Establishing the facts is particularly difficult in this case because of the complicated political situation where we face obstruction and disinformation from the Russian Federation” (Min 1:55:26). After conceding that Fyodor Dostoevsky was “one of the greatest writers in history [who] has written books about how to deal in good conscience with crime”, Schijns then launched her race-hate accusation. The relatives, she said, are directly “injured by Russia’s attitude” (Min 1:56:00).  

The defence lawyers, Sabine ten Doesschate and Boudewijn van Eijck, were asked by the judge if they wished to reply to the presentations and allegations by Schijns and Langstraat. They said they did not (Min 1:4:10:10).  “The defence lawyers seem to be afraid of public opinion and negative press if they challenge the veracity or the legality of the victims’ lawyers,” a Dutch observer commented.  

On July 21, in an official announcement  Manon Ridderbecks (left) was named to the courtroom prosecution team, replacing Dedy Woei-A-Tsoi (right)i; the latter has a reputation for showing public prejudice against defendants, and has been sent back to a city desk in Rotterdam; for details, read this.  Ridderbecks has participated in closed-door meetings of prosecutors and police on the Joint Investigation Team since 2015.  In leaked minutes of JIT meetings on January 25-26, 2018, Ridderbecks agreed with plans for Ukrainian secret service pressure on witnesses and western press disinformation.  She is also recorded as telling her colleagues that the evidence of telephone taps showed the separatist fighters on the ground “thought that military aircraft [Ukraine Air Force] flew close to civilian airplanes in order to be safe”, and that the Ukrainian Air Force was using flights like MH17 as human shields; that is a war crime, according to Dutch law. For more, read the transcripts.

Langstraat has been directing a “council of relatives” since 2015. Estimating their total at “about 450”, Langstraat told the court this number comprises “about 75% of all relatives”. Langstraat’s estimate of the total number comes to 600. But calculating that each of the 298 casualties of MH17 has three surviving relatives, the total number of all relatives ought to come to about 900. Langstraat’s count appears to be limited to paying clients — the 189 Dutch nationals on MH17. Multplying their number by three would total 567.

Langstraat and Schijns were asked:  How many victim relatives, individuals or groups, have signed mandates for their law firms to represent them?  How many of the victims on board MH17 do they represent?  What are the nationalities of those whose mandates you hold — what proportion Dutch, what proportion Australian, other?” “We cannot share this information with  you for privacy reasons,” Schijns said through a spokesman. Langstraat gave no reason for refusing to answer.

Late last month Langstraat called a meeting of his group of relatives; 140 attended either in person or by internet link. He then polled them, reporting that 66 wanted the opportunity to address the court in person; another ten by video link. Of this total, 20 said they wanted to speak in English, the rest in Dutch. There were no requests to speak in the Malay or Indonesian language, or any other language. On the casualty list, there were 44 Malaysians, 12 Indonesians – one in five.

Langstraat testified that 316 relatives want compensation; this number is less than half the total of relatives.

Confident the judge will convict the four accused of murder, Schijns and Langstraat also expressed confidence that he will take jurisdiction over their civil law claim, and decide himself on the sum of compensation for the victims’ families. Rigging the size of the payoff, the lawyers told the judge, will depend on what law he decides should govern the award. They told Steenhuis that US court orders issued against the accused in absentia are probably unenforceable by the Dutch courts.

According to Floyd Wisner (right), an Illinois aviation attorney, at the start of 2018 the US District Court for Northern Illinois issued an award of $400 million — $10 million in compensation,  $10 million in punitive damages
for each of 25 claimants – against Igor Girkin (Strelkov), one of the four accused in the Dutch trial. Wisner, who runs his firm with his daughter out of a small town shopfront, is not releasing the court papers or claiming the award himself.

For their clients, Schijns and Langstraat told Judge Steenhuis last week they favour applying Ukrainian law. What they did not explain is the reason. According to European legal experts, the advantage in Ukrainian law is that the onus of proof will be on the Russians accused to prove they did not act with negligence or ill-intention. Steenhuis has already agreed to this in adjudicating the criminal charge: the defendants must prove their innocence.

The Ukrainian civil code also provides for compensation for both material damages and moral ones; the latter don’t have to be proved or substantiated like the former; They are not limited by fixed limits, and they are awarded on  the judge’s discretion.

Steenhuis adjourned the next session of the trial to September 28.

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