Dutch aid program hindering prosecution of jihadists: report

Criminal defense lawyers are using a Dutch aid program for Syrian combat groups to get Dutch jihadists returning from Syria acquitted, according to Nieuwsuur and Trouw. The so-called NLA program is playing an important role in at least six criminal cases, the news agencies report after speaking to lawyers representing returned foreign rebel fighters in the Syrian civil war. 

The court of Rotterdam tried two suspected returned jihadists on Thursday. These two were members of combat group Ahrar al-Sham. The Public Prosecutor consider this group a "terrorist organization". But their lawyers deny this accusation, because the Ministry of Foreign Affairs labeled the same group as "moderate" in the NLA program - the Netherlands gave support to group Levant Front, which was affiliated with Ahrar al-Sham.

Between 2015 and 2018 the Netherlands supported at least 22 combat groups in Syria through the NLA program. This program was intended to deliver non-lethal aid to moderate groups in the Syrian conflict. This aid included things like pick-up trucks and uniforms. In September last year Nieuwsuur and Trouw identified the names of nine of these groups, including one that is considered a terrorist organization by the Public Prosecutor. According to Nieuwsuur, all nine groups worked with 'extremist' groups like Al Qaeda. 

Criminal defense lawyer Bart Nooitgedagt has represented a number of suspected jihadists who returned to the Netherlands from Syria over the past years. He regards the NLA program as a major support in the defense of future returnees. "People who return will argue: 'Yes, listen, I did participate in a certain organization, but not in a terrorist organization'," he said to Nieuwsuur. "It is not just about organizations that were directly supported by Foreign Affairs, but perhaps also indirectly, for example Jabhat al-Nusra [an organization that stemmed fro the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda], which was in a coalition with various parties some of whom we know the Netherlands supported."

Lawyer Danielle Troost is currently representing a returned foreign rebel fighter whose defense includes the NLA program. She too expects that the aid program will be used more often in future cases. "This will be in cases where it is unknown to which group the suspect was affiliated. Then there is the possibility that it was one of the 22 groups supported by the Netherlands."

Courts will take this defense seriously, professor of sanction law and deputy judge Henry Sackers said to Nieuwsuur "We are dealing with a new situation here. It could lead to the prosecution policy of the Public Prosecutor having to be reconsidered." According to Sackers, the problem is not with recognized terrorist organization like ISIS, but with jihadist groups that are not on international terrorism lists. It can not easily be proven that the group was involved in terrorism, and so jihadists who fought for such a group may go free. Especially if those groups also received the 'moderate' stamp from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.