THE downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 on a flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur on July 17, 2014, was not unique. That it was shot down by a missile is also not alien. That passengers and crew on board died in such a cruel manner is also not unprecedented.
There is one word that can be said of all airplane bombings or shootings involving civilians on board - tragic. The loss of lives and the grief suffered by the families of the victims - it's like trying to explain the inexplicable. Has justice been served for the families? Was there closure?
Take, for instance, the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, en route from Frankfurt to Detroit via London and New York, which killed 243 passengers and 16 crew. In the Lockerbie bombing, as it was known, two Libyan nationals were brought to trial in 1991 after protracted negotiations and United Nations' sanctions on Libya. However, only one man was convicted: his "co-conspirator" was acquitted by the Scottish court in the Netherlands, which was a special sitting of the High Court of Justice set up under Scots law, for the trial.
The accused was released by the Scottish government on compassionate grounds in 2009 after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He died in May 2012. In 2003, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi accepted responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing and paid more than US$2 billion in compensation to the victims' relatives. Case closed.
Another example, the Iran Air Flight 655, from Teheran to Dubai. The Airbus A300 was shot down on July 3, 1988, by an SM-2MR surface-to-air missile fired from USS Vincennes, a guided-missile cruiser of the United States Navy. All 290 people on board were killed. Media reports said the plane was hit while flying over Iran's territorial waters in the Persian Gulf. Reportedly, the incident occurred during the final stages of the Iran-Iraq War, which had been continuing for eight years. The US and Iran governments reached a settlement at the International Court of Justice in 1996. Eventhough the US did not admit legal liability or "formally apologise to Iran", it paid US$61.8 million on an ex gratia basis in compensation to the families of the Iranian victims.
Tomorrow, court proceeding start for the four men accused of murdering MH17's passengers and crew. For many Malaysians, the trial represents a ray of hope, a chance for some needed closure. This Leader is not expecting too much, but fervently hopes that the outcome will be different.
The accused, as reported, will be tried in absentia. Some analysts have questioned the value of a prosecution without the accused being present. No matter. Malaysians still consider it a significant milestone. The quest for truth and justice must continue. And, just like cases laid out bare in this Leader, the pain and suffering must be the determining factor in the penalty to be meted out to the accused.
In the two mentioned cases, analysts have said it was a travesty of justice. Indeed, the compensation to the families was a poor substitute for justice. Lives were lost, those responsible must be made to pay. The punishment, hence, must commensurate with the crime.