Netherlands strongly criticised for treatment of terror suspects

Amnesty and Open Society Justice Initiative report condemns ‘inhuman’ Dutch jail units

Two international human rights organisations have launched a scathing joint attack on the Dutch government for detaining both convicted terrorists and suspected terrorists awaiting trial in “inhuman” conditions in two maximum-security jails.

The 60-page report by Amnesty International and the Open Society Justice Initiative depicts a regime in the two special terrorism units (TAs), at De Schie prison, near Rotterdam, and New Vosseveld prison in the southern town of Vught, that's hugely at odds with the rest of the penal system.

The Dutch crime rate has been falling since 2004 as a result of a focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment. Prisons have been closing, and those incarcerated typically have a relatively relaxed regime, with single rooms, TV and some internet, and time spent at home every month.

However, the conditions for convicted terrorists and terrorist suspects could not be more different, says the report, which details what it says are systematic violations of inmates’ human rights that have not been remedied despite promises by the prison authorities to implement reforms.


Psychological state

One basic problem, it says, is that anyone awaiting trial for a terrorism-related offence is automatically sent to one of the two TAs – which immediately “undermines their right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty”.

It also means that, in an environment in which the psychological state of prisoners can have serious operational implications, the prison authorities never go through an induction process that assesses whether any particular detainee poses a risk.

Inmates of TAs, whether convicted or on remand, are routinely held in individual cells for 19-22 hours a day, and their contact is strictly limited when they are outside their cells. This can amount to solitary confinement over prolonged periods, which is forbidden under human rights legislation.

‘Invasive and humiliating’

The report, based on interviews with 50 people, including 19 former detainees, also says the inmates – again, those who have been convicted and those who have not – are “routinely and frequently” subjected to “full-nudity body searches that are invasive and humiliating”.

It says the level of audio and video surveillance, and physical monitoring, is such that many detainees refuse to discuss personal or private family matters during visits by family or friends.

Prison officers are even present during medical examinations, which “breaches the principle of medical confidentiality”. Similarly, their presence during legal consultations has “a chilling effect” on the ability of detainees and their lawyers to discuss their cases in confidence.

One woman, who was eventually acquitted on all charges, said that during her five months in Vught jail, she was cut off from other detainees for 10 consecutive weeks initially, and later for another three consecutive weeks.

The report concludes that the two units ignore their responsibility for rehabilitation of inmates, and instead operate a regime that runs counter to their goal of increasing society’s safety and security.

In a written response, the minister for legal protection, Sander Decker, said the two units “adhere to international standards”. However, reforms, he added, were “under way”.

Peter Cluskey

Peter Cluskey

Peter Cluskey is a journalist and broadcaster based in The Hague, where he covers Dutch news and politics plus the work of organisations such as the International Criminal Court