Judge says downing of MH17 'almost incomprehensible' as murder trial begins

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AMSTERDAM (March 9): Three Russians and a Ukrainian went on trial in absentia in the Dutch capital on Monday charged with murder in the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in 2014, killing all 298 passengers and crew.

The plane was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it was hit by a surface-to-air missile. There were no survivors.

Prosecutors say the suspects helped arrange the Russian missile system used to shoot down MH17, a civilian aircraft, on July 17, 2014, over territory held by pro-Moscow rebels fighting Ukrainian government forces in eastern Ukraine.

The suspects, still at large, are believed to be in Russia.

"Many people have long waited for this day," presiding Judge Hendrik Steenhuis said in opening remarks. "This tragic loss of so many lives has touched many all over the world.

"The court wants to say it realises the impact of the loss of so many human lives and that the way it happened was almost incomprehensible."

The defendants, Russians Sergey Dubinsky, Oleg Pulatov and Igor Girkin and Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko, had senior positions in the pro-Russian militias in eastern Ukraine in 2014.

The judges' first order of business was to verify whether the suspects had appointed lawyers to defend them and to lay out a timetable for the case to proceed.

The aircraft's downing led to sanctions against Russia by the European Union. It also heightened tension between Russia and Western powers who blame it for the disaster, which killed 196 Dutch, 43 Malaysian and 27 Australian nationals, among others.