MPs grill Justice Min. over MH17 forensic expert firing

Ard van der Steur (Photo: Commons)Ard van der Steur (Photo: Commons)

Fierce criticism and a motion of no confidence were what Minister Ard van der Steur of Security and Justice faced on Wednesday in the parliamentary debate about his actions surrounding George Maat, the forensic scientist who was discredited after giving a lecture showing images of flight MH17 victims. The motion of no confidence did not get a majority vote, which means that Van der Steur can continue as Minister, if in a somewhat battered state, NU reports.

On Wednesday Van der Steur had to answer to how he treated Maat following the lecture and why he kept certain information from an investigation into the affair secret from both Maat and the Tweede Kamer, lower house of parliament. The investigation report showed that Maat did little wrong.  He can not be blamed for showing the MH17 images, there was a lack of clear guidelines and there were previous lectures using such images.

During the debate, Van der Steur was accused of playing "word games" to hide his own mistakes. Opposition parties SP, PVV, PvdD, VNL and 50Plus stated that they have no confidence that the Minister will learn from his mistakes and filed a motion of no confidence. Other opposition parties, CDA, D66, GroenLinks and ChristenUnie, did not go that far, but proposed that Van der Steur be placed under Guardianship.

Almost the entire opposition backed the motion that the minister must be placed under "increased supervision". CDA parliamentarian Pieter Omtzigt suggested that Van der Steur must discuss each request to publish information with Prime Minister Mark Rutte.

Van der Steur found this a bad idea. "I am responsible for the disclosure of documents. The Prime Minister can play no role with that and he can not advise me there." he said to the Tweede Kamer. Both motions failed, but the Minister still promised the Tweede Kamer that with each document he will ask himself the question of what the Kamer should know and when. "And with the question of 'when?' the answer is of course: as soon as possible", he said.

Maat was fired from the MH17 investigation team shortly after the controversial lecture. Van der Steur called his actions "extremely inappropriate and distasteful". For months the forensic scientists demanded an apology from Van der Steur. He believed that he did nothing wrong and followed what rules there were on giving such lectures. The Minister always refused, only giving in and apologizing to Maat last week.

In the debate Van der Steur insisted that Maat was not fired. According to him, the confusion arose when he spoke about "suspension" and "ending the cooperation" on two separate occasions. "I meant the same thing", he said, according to NU. He does not have the authority to fire Maat, only the chief of the National police can do so.

GroenLinks accused him of playing "word games". The CDA accused him of publicly condemning Maat by not giving clarity to the image that emerged with the parliamentarians and the press that Maat was fired. Most opposition parties agreed that the Minister could have saved himself a lot of trouble if he decided to be open about matters at an earlier date, for example by publishing the police report into Maat's actions. The report only came out in full after Maat copied it with a pencil and note pad and released it to the press.

While the report showed that Maat could be blamed for very little, it was less kind to the Minister. Van der Steur acted "without proper understanding of the facts". The report suggests that in future the Minister first does a fact investigation and talk to both sides before proceeding to taking measures. Omtzigt thinks Van der Steur did everything in his power to keep the report secret. The D66 accused him of "deliberately ignoring facts". And the SP thinks he should have acknowledged his mistakes sooner, rather than trying to keep his side clean.

Van der Steur acknowledged that he should have shared the report with the Kamer confidentially at an earlier date and that he should have been more informed on the content of the investigation. At the time he did not think to ask the chief of police about the underlying documents, because that his not his job. "It does not work like that", he said, adding that in hindsight he should have done so because it would have made his life "a lot easier".