In Dutch terror cases, many are arrested but only few convicted

Samir A. (right) and an unknown man pictured after a court hearing in 2005.
By Steven Derix and Merel Thie

Fewer than one in four suspects arrested on terrorism charges in the Netherlands since September 11, 2001, were later convicted, statistics from the public prosecutor's office and an inventory by NRC Handelsblad show.

The number of convictions is lower than in other criminal cases. Of the roughly 260,000 criminal cases the prosecutor files each year more than half come before a judge, resulting in convictions 90 percent of the time.

Terrorist crimes are a separate article in the Dutch criminal code since 2004. As of late 2008, prosecutors had dealt with 113 cases of suspected terrorism. Only 27 of those led to a conviction, and some of those resulted in an acquittal on appeal.

Last March, police arrested seven people suspected of planning to plant explosives in an Amsterdam shopping district after an anonymous phone call from Brussels. All were released within days because no evidence of a terror plot was found. The police had sealed of the shopping area, including an Ikea outlet, and the story was all over the news. Other cases however, were never made public by either the police or the defendant.

The Netherlands has not had a major terrorist attack like Madrid and London have, and as far as is known none was narrowly averted either. The only terrorist attack since the criminal code was changed in 2004 was the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh, for which Mohammed B. was given a life sentence. But a conspiracy to kill Van Gogh was never proved. The appeals court ruled in 2008 that the so-called 'Hofstad group' around Mohammed B. could not be considered a terrorist organisation. although a smaller group around Samir A. - another member of the Hofstad group - was qualified as such. Samir A. has been arrested three times, but it remains unclear who his targets were and how advanced his plans were.

The numbers from the prosecutor only show the number of cases opened, not how many people were arrested in each of those. Suspects released within hours of their arrest were not always registered. Some suspects were arrested on several occasions.

An inventory based on media reports and conversations with defence attorneys shows that at least 153 people were arrested on (Islamic) terrorism charges since 2001. Of those, twenty were convicted, 22 were acquitted and almost two thirds (88) were released without being prosecuted. A number were deported for residing in the Netherlands illegally or handed over to authorities in other countries.

In a reaction, a spokesperson for the public prosecutor's office stressed the special character of terrorism cases. "In an ordinary case we take our time to collect the evidence. When it comes to terrorism, we don't have that time. The focus is on preventing an attack."

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