An appeals court in the Netherlands on Wednesday overturned the convictions of seven men on charges they belonged to a terrorist network.
The seven were associates of Mohammed Bouyeri, who is serving a life sentence for the 2004 murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh. The killing – van Gogh was shot and his throat was slit on an Amsterdam street – was found to be an act of terrorism.
The court’s decision was a blow to prosecutors and the government, which praised the original convictions as evidence of the effectiveness of tough terror laws introduced after the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.
Van Gogh collaborated on the movie “Submission” – a fictional study of abused Muslim women with scenes of near-naked women with Quranic texts engraved on their flesh.
The film angered some Muslims, including Bouyeri, who had hosted the men at meetings at his home in 2003 and 2004 under the guidance of a spiritual leader, Redouan al-Issar, who fled the country shortly before van Gogh’s murder.
In a summary of its ruling, the Hague Appeals Court said the group “could not be considered a criminal and terrorist organization, because no lasting and structured cooperation has been established, nor any shared ideology.”
“The suspects were not aiming, as a group, to commit or incite violent acts. All suspects are therefore acquitted of participating in a criminal and terrorist organization.”
The court conceded the men possessed and studied texts endorsing violence in the name of Islam, but said prosecutors had taken them out of context.
The court also said possession of radical texts “does not justify the conclusion that those that carry them – even if they do follow the philosophy they espouse – have the … goal of carrying out violent acts in order to introduce Sharia law into the Netherlands and make it an Islamic state,” as prosecutors had argued.
Prosecution spokeswoman Thea Tjeerdema said prosecutors were considering an appeal to the Supreme Court.
The court upheld a 15-year sentence on a separate charge for one of the seven, Jason Walters, who threw a hand grenade and injured several police officers in a standoff at a barricaded house in The Hague 10 days after van Gogh’s murder.
The court reduced the sentence for Ismail Aknikh, who was with Walters during the standoff, from 13 years to 15 months. He is to be released shortly because he has served that time.
Four of the remaining five men already had been freed, as they received sentences of less than two years because they were only seen to have played a supporting role in the network, called the “Hofstad” group by prosecutors.
The fifth, Nouredine el Fahtni, is serving a four-year sentence for a separate terrorism conviction.