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Lawyer: Coronavirus restrictions hamper MH17 defense case

SCHIPHOL, Netherlands – SCHIPHOL, NetherlandsA defense lawyer for a suspect in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine nearly six years ago said Monday that coronavirus restrictions have seriously hampered efforts to prepare the case.

Sabine ten Doesschate, a Dutch lawyer representing Russian suspect Oleg Pulatov, said flight bans and other restrictions linked to the pandemic “have had a major impact” on attempts to build a defense case, including preventing lawyers from flying to Russia to interview their client.

She said that meant defense lawyers aren't yet ready to make preliminary objections such as challenging the Dutch court's jurisdiction in the case.

Ten Doesschate spoke as the trial resumed for three Russians and a Ukrainian charged with involvement in shooting down the Boeing 777 that was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur on July 17, 2014.

Judges and prosecutors didn't immediately respond to the defense claims, which could lead to long delays in the trial that began on March 9. Coronavirus social distancing measures were in place in the courtroom, with judges and prosecutors separated from one another by glass screens.

All 298 passengers and crew were killed when a Buk missile fired from territory controlled by pro-Moscow separatist rebels blew the Malaysian passenger jet out of the sky.

None of the suspects have been handed over to face justice and none were present in a courtroom near the Dutch airport from which the doomed flight took off. The trial is taking place in the Netherlands because nearly 200 of the victims were Dutch citizens.

After Ten Doesschate spoke, prosecutors began giving judges an overview of the lengthy and painstaking international investigation into the downing of MH17.

They described extensive forensic tests on wreckage of the plane recovered in Ukraine and on the bodies of victims, as well as tests with missiles in 2016 that led to the prosecutors' conclusion that a Buk missile fired from rebel-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine brought down the plane.

Prosecutor Dedy Woei-a-Tsoi also outlined investigations into tapped phone conversations and other telecom data. She also described the process of finding and interviewing protected, anonymous witnesses and assessing their reliability.

Pulatov is the only defendant who has lawyers representing him in the trial, which is expected to last at least into next year. His Dutch attorneys say Pulatov insists he is innocent.

The three other suspects are Russians Igor Girkin and Sergey Dubinskiy and Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko. More suspects could face charges in the future as an international team of investigators continues its long-running probe.

Prosecutors allege the four men on trial were involved in deploying the missile, which prosecutors say was driven into Ukraine from a Russian military base.

Russia has consistently denied any involvement in the downing of the flight known as MH17 and has criticized the international investigation.