AMSTERDAM (CN) — Surrounded by armed guards, a nondescript office building in the outskirts of Amsterdam held the first preliminary hearing Thursday in a conspiracy case involving 17 suspects charged with five murders.
Taking place in the high-security courthouse known as The Bunk, the proceedings are referred to as the Marengo case – not for someone involved or for Napoleon’s famous war horse, but rather for a word randomly chosen by a computer, referring to a type of textile. It covers a complicated criminal conspiracy allegedly led by the Netherlands most wanted criminal known as Ridouan T.
The five charges of murder and another five of attempted murder cover a series of gang-related assassinations, called “liquidations” in Dutch, between 2015 and 2017. The most famous was that of Dutch crime blogger Martin Kok, who had himself served time for two murders before turning to writing. He was murdered after leaving a sex club in 2016 and Ridouan T. was accused of ordering the killing.
Despite the subject matter, Thursday’s hearing had a lighthearted atmosphere. One of the suspects, Zaki R., whose brother is also charged, smiled and shook hands with some of his co-defendants when he entered the courtroom. One lawyer offered tips for dealing with a technical issue, which elicited a laugh from the completely full room when the head judge replied that they could use as much help as possible.
In the interest of safety, the court asked the media not to identify any of other lawyers or the judges by name.
The preliminary hearings on Thursday and Friday, as well as March 6, will address procedural issues. A trial on the merits is not yet scheduled. The public prosecutor had hoped that a trial could start in the fall, but the court made it clear that the schedule would not be possible. It seems likely a trial will start in 2021.
The first part of Thursday’s hearing was dominated by a discussion about whether the suspects could be heard on the audio transmission of the hearing. Some did want to be identifiable in the recordings made by the Dutch public broadcaster NOS.
“This discussion doesn’t matter much,” said the chief judge. “They won’t say anything.”
The police had long struggled to bring any charges against the gang members, who allegedly trafficking in cocaine, until a witness identified as Nabil B. — the Dutch do not identify witnesses or suspects by their full name – came forward. Nabil B.’s brother was murdered in 2018, when his killer showed up for a supposed job interview and shot him.
Nabil B.’s lawyer, Derk Wiersum, was then murdered last year in front of his home in an attack that stunned the country. The Dutch justice minister called it “an attack on the rule of law.”
The two lawyers who are now representing Nabil B. are being permitted to represent their client anonymously, a first for the Dutch legal system. They and their client were present at the hearing via a video connection and their voices were distorted. That meant a disembodied voice sounding similar to Darth Vader from “Star Wars” occasionally interrupted the proceedings. This unique setup contributed to the technical issues that plagued the day-long session.
The alleged ringleader Ridouan T. was arrested in Dubai last year. He was, at the time, the Netherlands’ most-wanted person. There will be a separate hearing regarding the evidence against him on March 6. The court acknowledged this unusual arrangement was not ideal during Thursday’s hearing, but given the case’s complicated nature, it was considered to be the best solution.
Another accused leader of the criminal enterprise, Saïd R., was arrested in Colombia but has not yet been extradited to the Netherlands. During Thursday’s hearing, it was announced that he had retained counsel and both were present.
In the afternoon, the defense lawyers addressed the court. They had a litany of complaints, some of which focused on the difficulty of accessing some 610,000 electronic messages collected by the police during the investigation.
For safety reasons, all of the messages are encrypted and lawyers can only access the information from special computers at certain police stations or in the high-security prison where the suspects are being held.
“Consultation with my client is therefore impossible,” one attorney said.
Other lawyers asked for their clients to be released from pretrial detention.
“He has been detained for a year and a half and has nothing to do with this murder,” one lawyer said of his client.
Under Dutch law, suspects can only be held in pretrial detention for 104 days, so these preliminary sessions will continue every three months until the trial starts.
The hearing continues Friday with presentations from the remaining defense lawyers.