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Are drug gangs threatening rule of law in the Netherlands?

Priyanka Shankar in Amsterdam
December 27, 2022

The Netherlands is a country known for upholding the rule of law. But the yearlong investigation of the murder of crime reporter Peter R. de Vries has exposed cracks in the Dutch legal system.

People are seen placing flowers at the spot where Dutch journalist Peter R. de Vries was killed.
The death of Peter R. de Vries gripped the Netherlands July 2021Image: Michael Potts/Pro SHOTS/picture alliance

It was a crisp autumn morning in early November and a day of hope for criminal lawyers Peter Schouten and Onno de Jong, and journalist Saskia Belleman.

They had all gathered at the Amsterdam Rechtbank — the city's main courthouse — to find out how the court planned to proceed with the investigation around the death of their close friend and colleague, Peter R. de Vries.

But just before midday, the court ruled that the entire case had to be reheard early next year due to legal issues linked to the emigration of a judge involved in the case, and the discovery of new evidence in July, which added a new layer of complexity.

With solemn and slightly frustrated faces, they walked out of the courtroom after the announcement. 

A spokesperson for the de Vries family told reporters that while they were grateful to the court for trying to nail down the culprits, the entire process had been an ordeal for the family.

Belleman, a court reporter at Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf shared a similar sentiment, adding that delaying the verdict and now rehearing the case had also had a personal impact on many court and crime journalists like her.

"I was also frustrated by the thought that it had to be done all over again," she told DW.

"But on the other hand, over the last few weeks, I started realizing it's inevitable if there are new suspects who can tell us something more about what happened that night, like who gave the order to pull the trigger. Then it is relevant to do it all over again," she said.

De Vries case caught up in a legal mess

Peter R. de Vries, a renowned crime reporter in the Netherlands, was gunned down in July 2021, sparking anger and spreading shock waves across the country.

At the time of his death, de Vries had been the confidant of Nabil B. — the crown witness who testified in an extensive criminal trial known as Marengo against Ridouan Taghi, a Moroccan-Dutch drug mafia leader.

Prosecutors investigating the de Vries case suspect Taghi's gang could be behind the murder, making the yearlong trial a "legal mess" according to Peter Schouten.

"Everybody is intimidated by the drug gang — the police,  judges, the prosecutors," Schouten, 65, a criminal lawyer representing Nabil B, in the Marengo trial, told DW.

Peter R. de Vries is seen in a TV studio.
Peter R. de Vries was gunned down in July 2021. An investigation into his murder is ongoingImage: dpa

Schouten explained how this intimidation, together with these two criminal cases now being linked, had resulted in prosecutors withholding information to protect their witnesses, the lawyers of the accused demanding separate trials and a judge involved in the case leaving the country.

"Because of all this pressure, mistakes were made. But we need to legally man up against situations like this, learn from what is going on here and make changes in the law," he said.

Rule of law under threat in the Netherlands?

Across the European Union, the Netherlands is a country known for upholding the rule of law and supporting  press freedom. But the murder of de Vries and the complexity of the legal procedures in the investigation have exposed cracks in the Dutch rule-of-law system.

Both Schouten and his colleague Onno de Jong, who are the main lawyers of the crown witness in the Marengo trial, have been living under police protection for over a year, after they heard they were on a death list because of their work.

"After our colleague and friend de Vries was shot in July 2021, that was actually the moment that our police protection became very intense, involving bodyguards and armored cars. We have now been under such protection for two-and-a-half years, and have become used to it," Schouten told DW.

Cocaine and the power of the Dutch drugs mafia

But such cases are "really crazy" according to Costanza, a young Italian expat who currently lives in The Hague and didn't want to give her full name.

"Everyone turns to the Netherlands as the prime example of how countries can push forward in legalizing drugs," she told DW.

But she added that liberal laws have also made drug mafias thrive in the Netherlands, as in her home country, Italy.

"It opens your eyes to the whole reality behind how it has made the Netherlands become a narco state, because there hasn't been much attention on how authorities should be treating this in the justice system," she added, referring to increasing criminal activities carried out by drug gangs.

According to the 2021 Global Organized Crime Index, the crime rate in the Netherlands is not yet alarming. Out of 193 countries, it holds the 107th spot with a global criminality score of 4.69, which has been calculated as an average of the number of criminal markets and criminal actors in the world.

The index also highlighted that most of the criminal networks in the country are involved in street-level drug sales, prostitution and arms trafficking, and are concentrated mainly in the major cities of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague. 

This was one of the reasons why Schouten was keen to continue covering the Marengo trial and tackle organized drug gangs, despite the risks the case posed to his own life.

"I couldn't stand the fear that was emerging in society. We have a rule of law in the Netherlands and in Europe which charts out how we fight against criminals, and how we guarantee the rights of people and suspects. So for me it is important to continue my representation in the case," he said.

Saskia Belleman said that a similar sentiment also existed in the Dutch journalism community.

"My colleagues are really adamant in writing about organized crime and revealing what's happening in the country and how dangerous it is and how important it is to fight organized crime. But we're all more careful," she told DW.

"We do have a few colleagues that are being guarded 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They can't do their job properly because they have to be guarded all day and all night, which is terrible to experience because they live under a glass jar and that is scary," she added.

A police van is seen outside the Amsterdam Courthouse
'Criminality isn't going to end with a verdict. I think we will be dealing with this for decades': de JongImage: Peter Dejong/ASSOCIATED PRESS/picture alliance

Netherlands working with EU to 'win the fight against organized crime'

With the de Vries case set to be reheard early next year, Schouten and de Jong haven't lost hope. But both highlighted the urgency of finding solutions both within the country and Europe to rectify legal mistakes and protect people from crime.

"This is not Italy in the 1950s, this is the Netherlands in 2022, where we are dealing with organized crime. So this is a matter for all countries in Europe and not only for the Netherlands," Schouten said.

While mafias in Italy have been thriving since the early 1900s, in recent times organized crime groups have popped up across the EU, according to a 2021 report by the Europol, the EU crime agency. 

The report highlighted that close to 40% of the criminal networks active in the EU are involved in the trade of illegal drugs. Moreover, it said 65% of the criminal groups active in the bloc are also composed of members of multiple nationalities. 

Dutch Justice and Security Minister Dilan Yesilgoz-Zegerius told DW that the Netherlands is collaborating with other European countries like neighboring Belgium to "win the fight against organized crime."

"We are investing an additional €700 million ($744 million) plus structurally in the coming years and securing the system and people who work in  tackling organized crime like lawyers, journalists and local officials and administrators," she said in an email.

But according to de Jong, the fight is going to be a long one.

"Criminality isn't going to end with a verdict. I think we will be dealing with this for decades and of course, the government is trying to battle this. But in that aspect, we have to realize that we should keep the balance in our justice system intact," he told DW.

"So if you fight crime hard, make sure you give the defendants and the suspects what they need: 'a good defense,'" he said.

Edited by: Rob Mudge