4 Dutch Muslims convicted of terror plan
AMSTERDAM, Netherlands - A court convicted four Dutch Muslims on Friday of plotting terrorist attacks and sentenced them to up to eight years in prison, a victory for prosecutors who had failed several times before to convict would-be terrorists before they acted.
The heaviest sentence was reserved for Samir Azzouz, 20. Judges said he had played a "central role" in the group and had prepared a suicide video meant to "strike terrible fear into the Dutch people."
The group had allegedly planned to attack Dutch politicians, including Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, and the headquarters of the Dutch intelligence agency.
Azzouz had been arrested twice before as part of investigations into alleged terrorist activities.
The first time he had bombmaking materials, but was released without charge on a technicality.
The second time he was charged with planning an attack but was acquitted when the judges found the preparations had not advanced far enough to prove a terrorist conspiracy.
On Friday, presiding Judge E. Koning said Azzouz had taken "concrete steps" toward an attack by gathering automatic weapons. Koning also said the suicide videotape, together with a tapped telephone conversation "could mean nothing else" except that Azzouz was close to carrying out the attack.
In that conversation, he mentioned a "soup about to boil." Azzouz's lawyer Victor Koppe called the verdict "political" and said his client plans to appeal. "Everything (Azzouz) says is interpreted in the worst possible way,"
he told Dutch television. The prosecution was pleased with the verdict even though it was much less than the 15 years prosecutors sought, spokeswoman Digna van Boetzelaer said. The judges ruled that the defendants shared an ideology of jihad, or holy war. But they said the defendants did not constitute a terrorist organization, which likely would have led to longer sentences.
Among other suspects, Nouredine al Fatmi, who already is serving a five-year sentence in a separate terrorism case, was given an additional four years for plotting attacks and for recruiting others for armed attacks.
Mohammed Chentouf, who judges said did not play a leading role but was also plotting attacks was sentenced to four years. Soumaya Sahla, al Fatmi's ex-wife, was given a three-year sentence for conspiring with the others. One other defendant was convicted of passport fraud and sentenced to three months. A sixth defendant was acquitted of all charges.
All six had pleaded not guilty. Defense lawyers argued they were innocent religious victims of police harassment, and that several witnesses who had testified against them were not credible.
Prosecutors say Balkenende and former lawmaker Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the creative partner of slain filmmaker Theo van Gogh, may have been among the group's targets.
The filmmaker was murdered by a Muslim who was offended by a film he made depicting Islam as cruel to women. Evidence included the recovery of bomb-making manuals and radical Islamist propaganda. Azzouz's suicide video and his own testimony in this and other cases also played a role, judges determined.
The video was an indication that Azzouz was close to achieving his objective, "such as an explosion that would mean the death of many people," said Koning. Speaking in his own defense during the trial, Azzouz said the videotaped suicide message was meant as a joke, and said he would never kill somebody in the Netherlands because under his interpretation of Islam that would be forbidden.
But Koning said it was clear that Azzouz was serious. While testifying as a defense witness in an earlier case against several of his friends, he told judges: "We reject your system. We hate you. I guess that about sums it up."