On July 17, 2014, Thursday, the MH17 Boeing 777 took off from Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam and was scheduled to arrive in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur the next day.
But the near-missing plane was shot down in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, operated by Russian-backed separatists.
A total of 298 people – 15 crew and 283 passengers from 17 countries – were killed. Among the passengers were 196 citizens of the Netherlands.
At the time, pro-Russian rebels and the Ukrainian military were locked in a fierce battle.
Ukraine and the West hold Russia accountable for shooting down the plane; investigators have said that the Buk missile used is from a Russian military base. Moscow has repeatedly denied the allegations.
The bodies of the dead and pieces of the plane were scattered in sunflower fields in eastern Ukraine – an area that has been a war zone for eight years as Russia’s war against its neighbor escalates.
After a lengthy investigation into the case, prosecutors said the suspects – Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko and Russians Igor Girkin, Sergey Dubinsky and Oleg Pulatov – played a key role in providing the weapons that brought down the plane.
The Dutch court in charge of the case of the four men started the trial in March 2020 and the jury is expected to deliver the verdict on Thursday, starting at 1:30 pm local time (12:30 GMT).
Here are five things you should know:
Why is this decision important?
Brechtje Van De Moosdijk, spokesperson for the Dutch Public Prosecution Service for the MH17 case, told Al Jazeera that the decision is important because it is the first time that an independent decision will be made on what happened in the flight.
“The court must answer three questions: One is related to whether the Russians delivered the missile, the second is related to where it was fired and the third is the responsibility of the suspects. These are questions that we have been investigating for many years and tomorrow when they give their verdict it will be great and bring justice to the parties innocent,” he said.
Marnie Howlett, a political scientist and lecturer in Politics in Russia and Eastern Europe at the University of Oxford, said that the MH17 tragedy is a reminder that the war in Ukraine has been going on since 2014.
“When we see this decision about MH17, it is important to remember that what is happening in Ukraine even now, is not unusual. MH17 being shot down and several people losing their lives was already a big sign that war could happen,” he told Al Jazeera.
“When we look at the news of the decision and see what is happening in Ukraine now, we have to remember that this is not just a nine-month war but an eight-year war,” he said.
Who is being blamed?
The four men who allegedly blew up the plane have been tried in absentia – a case where the defendant is not in court – as they are at risk.
At the time, Igor Girkin, whose name is Igor Strelkov, was the head of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Minister of Defense in the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR).
SERGEY Dubinsky is a veteran of Russian intelligence, while the Ukrainian Kharchenko was leading the DPR army and reported to Dubinsky.
All three will be tried in their absence.
But Oleg Pulatov, the former head of Russian intelligence and Dubinsky’s deputy, has agreed to represent his lawyers in the case.
According to Van De Moosdijk, prosecutors have ordered life imprisonment for the four men in Russia.
“All of them are on the wanted list and they can be arrested according to the court order once we confirm their whereabouts. If they are found guilty – which we don’t know yet – they could be re-arrested to serve their sentences. But as we know, Russia does not allow this in their laws, which makes prosecutions difficult,” he told Al Jazeera.
Van De Moosdijk said that both the public prosecutor and the group of activists can appeal against the court’s decision if they are not satisfied with the decision.
“If there is an appeal, then the whole case has to be retried by different judges, which makes the case drag on for years,” he said.
According to the Reuters news agency, Pulatov’s legal team has previously argued that the case has so far been unfair and poorly investigated.
What do the victims want?
The families of the victims have been waiting eight years for the court’s decision and Thursday’s decision may bring comfort to many, said Van De Moosdijk.
“We have been holding meetings with the families of the victims since the beginning of the case and have made it a priority to share the findings of the investigation and to inform them of how Dutch law works,” he told Al Jazeera.
“While many are aware that the suspects are at risk, the families feel it is important for the court to establish what happened and hold them accountable.”
Grieving families of victims from around the world are expected to gather at a high-security airport near Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, where the plane took off, to hear a Dutch jury hand down their verdict.
For those who cannot be there, the court has confirmed that the judgment, which will be delivered in Dutch, is being administered and translated into English.
Also, if the suspects are found guilty, the court is expected to announce the final compensation that will be used for the families of the victims.
The amount could be between 30,000 to 40,000 euros ($31,000 to $41,500), but the victims’ lawyers have asked for more money, Van De Moosijk said.
Is Russia to blame?
The Dutch MH17 court verdict comes at a critical time, as Ukraine continues to fight Russia.
Mr. Howlett points out that while much of the talk surrounding the decision is whether the suspects will be jailed or whether Russia will be prosecuted, the fact that a legal investigation took place first is very important.
“Many countries such as the Netherlands, Australia, Malaysia and others have participated in the investigation of this case and the prosecution of this case is very important. The fact that foreign countries have really gone through these steps to test these people also shows that the West is interested in Ukraine and is helping them in their war against Russia,” he said.
“Although Western countries believe in the law, Russia does not follow the law. So the decision, whatever it may be, will not be confirmed in Russia, increasing political tensions. But we have to wait and see,” he added.
What can we learn from this story?
Eight years on, the MH17 case holds important lessons, according to Howlett and Van De Moosdijk.
“Delivering this sentence is important for the people who lost their lives and their families and countries that are waiting for justice. But it is also a lesson for the West about the importance of being able to investigate this issue openly. This is what the people of Ukraine and other victims of crimes are fighting for now,” Howlett told Al Jazeera.
Van De Moosdijk said: “Five countries that legally cooperate to investigate a case can be difficult.” But there was good agreement with every piece of evidence that was proven repeatedly and comprehensively.
“In seeking the truth, it’s important to remember that the process can take a long time, and to investigate deeply. But in the end, this long-term process is important not only for victims of crime but for all people.”