March 9 (UPI) -- The murder trial of three Russians and a Ukrainian accused of shooting down Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 began in the Netherlands Monday in a proceeding that could last for years.
The four men are being tried in absentia, as they have not yet been captured. An attorney for one of the defendants, Russian Oleg Pulatov, was present in the Schiphol courtroom as judge Hendrik Steenhuis opened the trial more than five years after the airliner was shot down.
The defendants are accused of shooting down the Malaysian jetliner on July 17, 2014, with a missile over Ukraine as it was en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. All 298 passengers and crew died in the crash. Two-thirds of the passengers were Dutch.
Dutch officials determined the BUK missile was fired from farmland in eastern Ukraine that was controlled by pro-Russian separatists. Moscow, however, disputes the conclusion and says Ukrainian government forces fired the missile.
The defendants on trial are Pulatov, Igor Girkin and Sergey Dubinskiy of Russia and Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko. They face charges of murder and of causing the jetliner to crash.
"Many have longed for this process for a long time," Steenhuis said in his opening remarks.
The first stages of the trial will concentrate on preliminary matters before testimony begins later this year. The trial is expected to take years, with more investigations to be conducted and more suspects likely to be added.
Dutch investigators released audio recordings last fall that were intercepted in the weeks before the crash, which they said proved close coordination between separatists in the Donetsk People's Republic and "leaders in Moscow."
"They spoke with leaders in Moscow, near the border with Ukraine and in Crimea," the investigators said. "Communication mostly took place via secure telephones provided by the Russian security service."
In the phone calls, investigators say, separatist leader Alexander Borodai spoke once to a Russian official and said he was "carrying out orders and protecting the interests" of Russia.
In December, Moscow refused a Dutch request to turn over another suspect in the case, Ukrainian national Volodymyr Tsemakh, who's identified as a top separatist leader. He was in Ukrainian custody until he was sent to Russia in a prisoner swap late last year.