Life in prison demanded against tram mass shooting suspect

Investigators at the scene of a mass shooting in a tram on 24 Oktoberplein in Utrecht, 18 March 2010
Investigators at the scene of a mass shooting in a tram on 24 Oktoberplein in Utrecht, 18 March 2010PolitiePolitie

Prosecutors in the Netherlands demanded a rare life sentence in prison against Gokmen T., the man on trial for killing four people in a mass shooting on a tram in Utrecht on March 18, 2019. The 38-year-old man is facing four counts of murder or manslaughter with terrorist intent, attempting to kill three others, and threatening a further 17 with terrorist intent. He confessed to the shooting multiple times

"The total absence of remorse makes the chance of a repeat offense considerable," the Public Prosecution Service (OM) said. This was considered against a determination by psychiatric experts that T. has a personality disorder and limited intellectual capacity, which could justify a reduced sentence combined with psychiatric treatment. "Taking all this into account, the prosecutors come to the conclusion that the only appropriate sentence requirement is life imprisonment," the OM said.

The demand of a life sentence led to a burst of applause in the courtroom, according to several reporters present during the hearing.

"That the suspect had the purpose of terrorism is apparent from the way he acted, and from his statements expressed in various ways," the prosecution stated. They argued that he committed the crimes in a very public place and in broad daylight, while creating an us-versus-them narrative where he said that he and his fellow followers of Islam were wronged "not made of sand," the statement continued.

"This shows that the accused wanted to demonstrate that Dutch society is not inviolable."

The defense will present its closing argument on Friday

Previous hearings in this case on Monday and Tuesday were also tumultuous. T. was removed from court on both days, first for spitting at his lawyer and then for making snide comments as a victim told her story of being shot and lying in a coma for days. He also raised his middle fingers to the judges and openly laughed at victims and their relatives.

Thursday's hearing was delayed for hours when legal adviser Karim Aachboun submitted a request that the judges be replaced, arguing that the current panel judges are biased. He made the statement on behalf of his client, Mustafa Ercan, a 44-year-old Utrecht man who accused T. of also trying to kill him on the tram last March. Ercan said T. tried to fire a gun at him but it jammed, and he wanted T. to be charged with an additional count of attempted murder, whereas prosecutors said there was not enough evidence to do so. Aachboun argued the court did not properly respond to his request to postpone the criminal case, in order to take more time to consider the extra charge.

In an email exchange at the end of February, the court said that it wanted to deal with this request in a hearing. This happened on Monday, but Aachboun was not present. On Thursday he accused the judges of "bias" and asked that they be replaced.

When this happens, an independent council must check whether the accusations are justified. The council decided that the judges were not biased and that Aachboun did not sufficiently substantiate his allegation. The trial continued, but with an hours long delay - to the palpable irritation of many of the survivors and surviving family members present in the court room.

Mustafa was a passenger of the tram on which T. opened fire on 24 Oktoberplein. Mustafa saved two people, by dragging them away and warning them about the shooter. He said that he saw T. aim the gun at him and tried to shoot, but according to the Public Prosecutor, this is not visible from the video footage recovered as evidence. For Mustafa, the Prosecutor therefore charged T. with threat instead of attempted murder.