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AMSTERDAM, Netherlands - After the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States,
Dutch intelligence claimed to have uncovered a series of Islamic terrorist
plots, prompting many people here 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 nations.
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 National Anti-Discrimination
Bureau, a nongovernment organization.
While there is no equivalent to 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.
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 here in
the Netherlands — a country with a let-live attitude that was the first to
tolerate marijuana use and to legalize euthanasia and gay 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 ten.
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
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 nation 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 seemed to have been victims of racial profiling.
He said Muslims had already been alarmed by laws enacted in the past two
years that have tightened immigration and make 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
About six percent of the 16 million Dutch population is Muslim, and the
figure is well over 10 percent 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
However, fears that 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. There is no
civil rights group with a status comparable to that of the American Civil
Liberties Union (news - web sites).
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.
In the July arrests, four men were caught videotaping buildings in The Hague
(news - web sites), scouting potential terrorist targets, prosecutors say.
Videos of men pledging suicide attacks were allegedly found in their homes.
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 nation 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
He acknowledged that the threat seemed 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."