9 convicted in terror case

Relatively light sentences of Dutch court illustrate legal difficulties in prosecution


PARIS -- A Dutch court convicted nine members of an Islamic extremist cell on terrorism charges yesterday, but the relatively light sentences and acquittals of five other suspects revealed continuing legal obstacles to fighting terrorism in the Netherlands.

The verdicts in a heavily guarded courtroom in Amsterdam were a partial victory for prosecutors in the case against the Hofstad Group, which stunned the Netherlands when its leader assassinated filmmaker Theo Van Gogh in November 2004.

The mostly Dutch-born militants stood out for their youth, ferocity and the prominent role of women members in the network. The threat it posed forced a number of political figures in the usually tranquil country to go into hiding, temporarily flee the country or protect themselves with 24-hour security details.

The three-judge panel convicted Van Gogh's assassin, Mohammed Bouyeri, who is already serving a life sentence for the ritualistic shooting and stabbing of the outspoken filmmaker.

The judges imposed 15-year and 13-year sentences, respectively, on Jason Walters, 21, and Ismail Aknikh, 23, for attempted murder and membership in a terrorist group. Walters and Aknikh, both of whom had traveled to Pakistan to train with militants, wounded three police officers with grenades during a standoff in The Hague soon after the Van Gogh murder.

Police arrested Walters and Aknikh because wiretaps indicated they planned follow-up assassinations of legislators including Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a feminist who worked with Van Gogh on a short film critical of Islamic extremism. But the court did not accept that evidence because it was gathered by the intelligence service, not the police - a recurring problem in Dutch anti-terror prosecutions.

The judges imposed a five-year sentence on another central figure: Nourredine Fatmi, a Moroccan-born 23-year-old who was captured at an Amsterdam subway station last July with a loaded and cocked machine pistol. Prosecutors had asked for a 10-year sentence.

There was evidence that Fatmi and his girlfriend plotted to kill Ali, and a witness said that Fatmi admitted afterward to the plot. But judges convicted him only of weapons possession and terrorist activity. His girlfriend is serving time for weapons possession.

Critics around Europe point out that Dutch anti-terror agencies grew alarmed about the Hofstad Group more than a year before the Van Gogh killing. Police made a number of arrests, but courts released or acquitted suspects.

Recently, authorities were forced to drop charges against a Moroccan-born translator for the intelligence service accused of acting as a double agent for the network.

The five men acquitted yesterday had already been released because they had served more time than the sentences they might have faced. They included Jason Walters' younger brother, Jerome. The brothers are Dutch converts to Islam whose father was a member of the U.S. military stationed in the Netherlands.

As teenagers, the Walterses became so radical that they tried to force their mother and sister to wear head-to-toe burkas and adopt fundamentalist practices, causing the women to go to the police.

If Jason Walters and Aknikh had not responded violently to the police raid, they would probably not have received such stiff sentences, law enforcement officials said.

Sebastian Rotella writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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