Families of the victims have travelled to Amsterdam for the first stage of the hearings, which could end up running for more than a year and have been partly funded through a $50 million contribution from the Australian government.
The four men – three Russians and one Ukrainian – will not be in court because treaties prevent their extradition to The Hague.
Dutch prosecutors allege Igor Girkin, Sergey Dubinsky, Oleg Pulatov and Leonid Kharchenko were intimately involved in an offensive by Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine when MH17 was targeted. The prosecutors will also present evidence to prove each man played a role in sourcing the Russian-owned missile launcher from the Russian army – a strategy that could reveal new details about Moscow’s connections to the incident and response to it.
“To the extent that President Putin has a conscience, he should be haunted by this,” said Mr Abbott, the prime minister at the time the plane was downed.
“I don’t believe he gave the order to bring down this aircraft. But he certainly permitted a Russian missile battery to be in Ukraine where it was under the control of people of such malice or incompetence that they did shoot down this plane, so whichever way you look at it, he bears a heavy share of responsibility.
“It is impossible for Australia to regard Russia as a normal country when the Russian government from the President down to this day connives and covers up this atrocity.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin could come under pressure during the MH17 trial.Credit:AP
Mr Abbott famously vowed to “shirtfront” Mr Putin in the wake of the incident and said Australia had rightly been one of the strongest critics of Russia in the years since. The governments of Australia and the Netherlands raised the stakes in 2018 by formally accusing Moscow of “direct involvement”.
Russia has always denied any responsibility and has repeatedly sought to discredit an investigation into the disaster which was led by Dutch and Australian officials and triggered this week’s court case.
Mr Abbott repeated his belief that Russia should accept responsibility and pay compensation to the families of victims. He said he was not confident Russia would change its mind even if the trial produced overwhelming evidence of involvement from Moscow.
“There are any number of instances where Russia has bullied or terrorised its neighbours, where Russian operatives have murdered or wounded the opponents of the Putin regime. But for Australia, [MH17] is a particularly poignant example of that evil of the heart of the current Russian government.
“It’s a dreadful thing to lose someone in a horrific crime but it’s an even more dreadful thing if the crime is unpunished and the death goes unavenged,” he said.
The trial will be held before three judges at the Schipol Judicial Complex in Amsterdam.
Bevan Shields is the Europe correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.