Dutch prosecutors accused Russia on Tuesday of interfering with the spacecraft in shooting down flight MH17 and casting a dark shadow in the four-suspect disaster trial.
Moscow sought to track down witnesses in the trial that began in the Netherlands on Monday, leaving some in fear of their own lives if they were identified, prosecutors said.
Three Russians and one Ukrainian are tried in absentia following the 2014 crash of the Malaysia Airlines jet to eastern Ukraine held by the rebels with the loss of all 298 people on board, 196 of whom are Dutch.
Prosecutors have described fears that Russia was trying to track down potential witnesses, some of whom will give anonymous testimony.
“There are clear indications that Russian security services are actively attempting to stop efforts to establish the truth behind the shooting down of flight MH17,” prosecutor Thijs Berger told the judges.
“The use of Russian security services to find out the identification of witnesses in this investigation is a very real scenario. These agencies have the ability to intercept communications and monitor people’s travel movements.
“Several witnesses in this investigation say they fear for their lives if their identities come to light.” Prosecutors added that Russian security services were already “accused of multiple murders that have been committed in various European countries”.
Berger said some witnesses were interviewed anonymously to prevent them from “taking unjustified risks.”
“Every effort has been made to find people who have taken photos and videos and interview them as witnesses … some people interviewed were present or disseminated material online,” continued the prosecutor.
“Where possible, the camera in question, including the memory card, has been seized and handed over to the Netherlands Forensic Institute.”
Russia had also targeted investigators in several disaster-affected countries, the prosecutor said on the second day of the hearing in a maximum security court near Amsterdam Schiphol airport.
“The British and Dutch authorities determined that Russian GRU agents were involved in an attempt to penetrate the systems of the Malaysian investigative authorities,” said Berger, referring to the Russian military espionage agency.
There have also been attempts to join the Dutch Security Council which was investigating the MH17 disaster, he said.
“Taken together, this information casts a dark shadow over these proceedings,” said Berger.
The trial opened in the absence of the four suspects: Russian citizens Igor Girkin, Sergei Dubinsky, Oleg Pulatov and Ukrainian citizen Leonid Kharchenko.
International investigators say that the Boeing 777 jetliner was hit by a Russian-made BUK surface-to-air missile, fired from a territory held by pro-fly rebels fighting against Kiev.
Relatives of those who died have repeatedly called for trial to examine Russia’s role in the accident, which investigators say was caused by a Russian-made missile fired from separatist territory.
“The court made it clear that the Russian government is organizing a disinformation campaign,” said Anton Kotte, a board member of a foundation for the victims of the MH17 who lost their son, daughter-in-law and grandson.
“And we’ll have to be prepared for far more distortion of the truth as the case progresses.”
Special protection had been given to a witness, who was willing to be appointed later in the proceedings but remained anonymous for security reasons, according to prosecutors.
Called only M58 at this stage, the witness was a Russian volunteer connected to a separatist unit that was close to BUK when it was launched on the day MH17 was shot down.
The witness testified that Russian military personnel – who according to the separatists came from the Russian security agency of the FSB – were with the missile at the launch site, they added.
“Once it became clear in the following hours that it was not a military plane but a civilian flight, MH17, the disinformation campaign began immediately,” said prosecutor Dedy Woei-a-Tsoi.
Another witness identified only as S24 had “expressed fear of reprisals from the Russian Federation” while a third known as V9 asked to remain anonymous because “I could be taken by Russian special services,” added the prosecution.