‘Unacceptable’: Eerie protest for MH17 crash victims
The families of people killed when a missile shot down Malaysia Airlines flight 17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014 set out 298 white chairs outside the Russian Embassy on Sunday in a silent protest against Moscow's lack of co-operation in the investigation into the downing of the passenger jet.
The chairs - laid out in rows like seats in an aeroplane - represented the victims who died when a Buk missile fired from territory held by pro-Russia separatist rebels shot down the Amsterdam-to-Kuala Lumpur flight on July 17, 2014, killing everybody on-board.
The families stood in silence for two minutes after arranging the chairs and signs, including one that read: "Impunity (equals) unacceptable! Someone knows what happened … Justice for MH17."
The protest came on the eve of a Dutch trial for three Russians and a Ukrainian charged with murder for their alleged roles in the missile strike. Russia denies involvement and has dismissed the international investigation that led to the four suspects being charged, saying it is prejudiced against Moscow. Relatives accuse Russian authorities of seeking to hide the facts about exactly what happened.
Piet Ploeg, who lost his brother Alex, his sister-in-law and his nephew, said families weren't accusing Russia of downing the Boeing 777.
"But we are having a protest against the lack of co-operation of the Russian state in the investigation of the downing of MH17," he said. "And we want them to co-operate and stop obstructing the investigations."
In Moscow, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova accused investigators of presuming Russia's guilt before the court hearing opens on Monday and launching a "media campaign" to support the case and whitewash alleged gaps in the evidence.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo noted: "All of those indicted are members of Russia-led forces in eastern Ukraine," and he called on Moscow "to cease its continuing aggressive and destabilising activities in Ukraine".
Families are convinced Russia knows - and is blocking - the truth.
"What we're doing here today, this is truly us making a silent statement to somebody who may have the answers," said Lucas Schansman, whose nephew Quinn - a joint Dutch-American citizen - was among the dead.
The Joint Investigation Team last year named four suspects: Russians Igor Girkin, Sergey Dubinskiy and Oleg Pulatov as well as Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko. None of them is expected to attend the start of the trial on Monday in a courtroom near Schiphol, the Amsterdam airport from which the doomed flight took off.
Neither Russia nor Ukraine extradites its citizens. Russia and pro-Russia separatists continued to deny involvement, even after prosecutors alleged that the Buk missile system that destroyed the passenger plane was transported into Ukraine from the Russian 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade's base in Kursk, and the launching system was then returned to Russia.
The team examined the wreckage and body parts, questioned witnesses and experts, studied radar and satellite images and analysed data and intercepted communications before indicting the four suspects.
Investigators said last year there was "almost daily telephone contact" between the self-proclaimed leaders of the pro-Russia rebel Donetsk People's Republic "and their contacts in the Russian Federation" using secure phones provided by the Russian security service.
The five nations that make up the international team - Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, Ukraine and the Netherlands - signed a deal on Sunday extending their co-operation.
"The prolongation ensures the investigation into the downing of MH17 continues unabated and in parallel with the trial of the four suspects," Dutch prosecutors said in a statement.
Families are hoping the trial, expected to last for more than a year, will shed definitive light on exactly what happened.
"The really important thing is that the truth comes out because the truth has been in short supply over the last five-and-a-half years," said Jon O'Brien, who flew to the Netherlands from Sydney with his wife Meryn to watch the trial.
Their son, Jack, was among those killed on MH17.
"Well, it hasn't been in short supply, but it's been denied, or there's been all sorts of other stories and distractions and obfuscation," Mr O'Brien said.
"So this is an opportunity for the plain, unvarnished truth to come out in the court process."