AMSTERDAM, Netherlands (AP) – After the 2001 terror attacks on the United Sttes, Dutch intelligence claimed to have cracked a series of Islamic terrorist plots, prompting many people in the Netherlands to wonder: “Are we next?”
The terror fears have spawned a raft of harsh security measures – from forcing citizens over 13 to carry identity cards, to authorizing police to stop and search people with no apparent cause – that challenge the image of the Netherlands as one of the world’s most progressive countries.
There have been few grumbles about the laws so far but some people are already talking about a serious erosion of civil liberties.
“The government is playing a game of panic football, where they move from one expansion of the law to another in reaction to the latest development,” said Jessica Silversmith, a spokeswoman for the Dutch National Anti-Discrimination Bureau, a non-government organization.
The Dutch have decided to safeguard civil liberties and the rule of law at almost any cost. They have also opted to protect their way of life and avoid spreading fear among the population
- Dutch have a kinder, gentler plan, Miami Herald, Sep. 14, 2004
While there is no equivalent of the U.S. Patriot Act in Europe, most countries have taken anti-terrorism steps that curtail civil liberties: Britain has held foreign suspects without charge, while Germany began religious profiling of suspects in the days after Sept. 11, 2001.
In France, with its history of attacks from Algerian dissidents, special judges have wiretapping powers similar to those granted to prosecutors under new Dutch laws.
But the new power of the law-enforcement agencies seem an odd fit in the Netherlands – a country with a live-and-let-live attitude that was the first to tolerate marijuana use and to legalize euthanasia and same-sex marriage.
Among other measures implemented in reaction to the threat of terror in the Netherlands are relaxing rules on wiretapping and monitoring Internet traffic and tripling the amount of time suspects can be held without charge from three days to 10.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, 40 Muslims have been arrested on suspicion of terrorism-related activity – only two have been convicted of any crime. The latest arrests came in July but the detentions were only disclosed this month.
Many Muslims claim the anti-terror laws – and the willingness of authorities to enforce them – are part of a wider problem of xenophobia that has gripped the country in recent years.
Said Bouddouft, chairman of a support group for North African immigrants, said the security laws are a “cause for concern,” citing several instances where Muslims seem to have been victims of racial profiling.
He said Muslims had already been alarmed by laws enacted in the last two years that have tightened immigration and made those who came earlier feel unwelcome. In particular, Bouddouft said, immigrants are upset over large hikes in visa and work permit fees and a decision to make Dutch citizenship classes mandatory.
About six per cent of the 16 million Dutch population is Muslim, and the figure is well over 10 per cent in major cities.
“There are a lot of Muslims who feel deceived,” Bouddouft said.
“They thought they were already integrating without trouble and suddenly they’re treated with hostility – not recognized as being ‘Dutch’ by the rest of the population.”
However, fears the new laws may infringe on civil rights have not yet spread to the population at large.
Despite their strong libertarian streak, the Dutch don’t have a tradition of questioning authority and trust in the government is strong.
Elected in 2002 on a law-and-order platform, the conservative government responded to terrorism concerns by arming the police and intelligence service with intrusive powers.
Even some of the staunchest supporters of civil liberties are expressing support for the tough legislation.
Marius Wessels, a member of parliament for the libertarian VVD party, said the government is still not doing enough to tackle Islamic fundamentalists and the preventative-search program should be expanded to include airports, train stations and public squares.
“We traditionally are very strict protectors of the rights of citizens. But in this respect, our priority is safety and that means we have to make some concessions,” he said.
In the July arrests, four men were caught videotaping buildings in The Hague, scouting potential terrorist targets, prosecutors said. Videos of men pledging suicide attacks were allegedly found in their residences.
In a separate case, a Rotterdam teenager goes on trial Thursday on charges of planning to bomb either a nuclear reactor, Amsterdam’s international airport, or a Dutch government building.
Previous cases involved people accused of helping Islamic terrorist cells elsewhere in Europe by preparing false papers and arranging finances for attacks. But of 17 men brought to court, all but two were acquitted for lack of evidence or what the judges called sloppy police work.
Though there have been no attacks on Dutch soil, people are nervous.
In the weeks after the March 11 train bombings in Madrid, reports of suspected bombs briefly closed several Dutch train stations. In July, the government put the country on a terrorist alert without explanation.
Earlier this month, Justice Minister Piet Hein Donner proposed granting his ministry the right to assume extraordinary powers when an attack is deemed imminent.
He acknowledged the threat seems remote but then said: “I don’t want to get the blame for doing too little if it proves later that the mosquito turns out to be an elephant.”