Amsterdam's mayor puts the squeeze on red light district's Fat Charlie

 

NETHERLANDS:Times are changing and even the Dutch are trying to crack down on prostitution. Jamie Smythreports from Amsterdam

Dressed in a stripy shirt, overweight and with wispy white hair that struggles to conceal his scalp, Charlie Geerts (63) could pass for an average grandfather. But behind his bland looks "Fat Charlie", as he is known in Amsterdam, is a former porn baron and the biggest brothel owner in the city's red light or De Wallen district. He is also the star of a court case, which began yesterday, that is focusing attention on Dutch policies on crime, prostitution and its notorious tourist attraction.

The case stems from a decision last month by Amsterdam city council to withdraw 33 licences to operate brothels - one third of all the red light windows in the De Wallen district - from Fat Charlie. With no warning mayor Job Cohen ordered Mr Geerts' multimillion euro brothel business to shut immediately. He also declared that a second wave of investigations into other brothel owner's activities would begin next year.

The city accuses Mr Geerts of having links to organised crime and has used a tough new legislative measure called the Bibob law to withdraw the licences. This enables city authorities to act against individuals on suspicion that a public permit for brothels, bars or cafés would be used to fund organised crime. Advocates of the 2003 law say it is a necessary tool to fight organised crime while its critics bemoan the lack of evidence required before officials can take tough action.

"This is a Kafkaesque situation," says Mr Jan Jahae, the lawyer representing Fat Charlie, who is also chairman of the European Criminal Bar Association "We can't even see what evidence the council has got on my client to enable it to revoke the permits You shouldn't be able to take the assets away on some vague suspicion." This will be an important test case for the Bibob law and for Amsterdam, says Mr Jahae.

The mayor's action has sent shockwaves through the De Wallen district, where hundreds of prostitutes dance in windows lit with red lights on the street, urging men to part with cash for sex. Sex workers fear it could mark the start of a crackdown against prostitution, which was legalised by the Dutch government in 2000.

Carolina, a 30-year old prostitute from the Czech Republic who works from noon to 7pm in one of Fat Charlie's windows, says that if the licences are revoked some girls will be forced to ply their trade on the streets where they don't set their own terms. "The conditions are much better working here in what is a more hygienic and much safer place," says Carolina, pointing to the emergency alarm and wash basin in the small cubicle where she dances every day in her lingerie, offering men sex for cash.

Up to 80 prostitutes per day work Fat Charlie's windows. Most would have to find a new outlet if the judge supports the council in its efforts to close him down.

The city council, which conducted investigations into the links between organised crime and prostitution in the red light district in the mid 1990s, says it has no doubts. According to people close to the case, one of these inquiries named Mr Geerts in connection to money laundering and drugs offences.

But Fat Charlie has never been convicted of any offence, insists Mr Jahae, who links the city's action against his client and the brothel business to a growing conservatism in Dutch society.

"Our society used to be well known for its liberalism but now it is moving very quickly away from there and moving in the direction of a police state," he says.

The city authorities deny this and insist their action against Fat Charlie is an attempt to crack down on crime rather than prostitution.

However, a swathe of new laws on immigration and the integration of Muslims highlight changes taking place in Dutch society. Now even the traditional liberal attitude to prostitution among Dutch people is under threat, according to some commentators.

"The red light district in Arnhem closed down last year due to the complaints of neighbours and there has been a drop in visitors to De Wallen recently," says Sietske Altink of the Red Thread prostitutes' union. "We are also concerned about the formation of a new government in the Netherlands that could target prostitution." The Christian Union (CU) is expected to join a coalition government with the Christian Democrats and Labour in March. The party wants to ban prostitution and introduce a host of other conservative policies such as banning soft drugs.

"In the Netherlands these days prostitution is made to look like a normal business, we are strongly opposed to this," says Hendrik Jan Talsma. "In our view it is modern slavery."

In a preliminary ruling yesterday the court ruled the brothels could stay open while Fat Charlie's full appeal against the council's ruling is being heard. Yet clearly, even if he wins his case, the changing climate in Dutch society and politics could make the brothel business a less profitable place to be in the years to come.