AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - A Dutch lawyer in a high-profile case against a group of men charged with drug-related killings was gunned down in front of his Amsterdam home on Wednesday in an attack condemned as a threat to the nation’s legal system.
Police said the victim was 44-year-old Derk Wiersum, a defence lawyer for Nabil Bakkali, a key witness for the prosecution in the case against 16 men accused of five murders and one attempted murder in the Netherlands between 2015 and 2017.
Gun violence remains rare in the Netherlands and such a killing of a defence lawyer is unprecedented, but Amsterdam has been experiencing an upsurge of drug-related crime.
Bakkali’s brother, who police say had nothing to do with the gang or the murders, was also killed at work last year, a week after authorities identified Bakkali as a witness.
Lawyers, prosecutors and judges responded with disbelief, issuing a joint statement warning of a threat to the country’s legal institutions.
“His loss hurts us all,” the statement distributed by the national prosecution service said. “This event is not just a personal drama, but also a serious threat to our legal system.”
The Netherlands’ counter-terrorism agency NCTV was put in charge of the investigation, Justice Minister Ferd Grapperhaus said. He skipped a parliamentary debate about the budget to discuss what he called the “disgusting murder” of a highly respected lawyer.
“This is an attack on our rule of law,” a visibly shaken Grapperhaus said. “The safety of people who work to guard that must be beyond question.”
Security teams were being formed to protect other officials involved in the case, he said, an unusual measure in the Netherlands.
Concern has been growing about crime in Amsterdam, a city of 800,000 people where recreational drug use has long been tolerated by law enforcement and an underworld of dealers and suppliers has flourished.
A report last month commissioned by the city said it “has given free rein ... to a motley crew of drugs criminals, a ring of hustlers and parasites, middlemen and extortionists, of dubious notaries and real estate agents”.
Police said they were looking for a 16- to 20-year old man dressed in black who fled the scene after the shooting shortly after 7.30 a.m. local time (0530 GMT). No one involved in the case is known to have been provided with extra security.
Bakkali is among those accused in the case, which is likely to go to trial next year, but has since 2017 provided police with over 1,500 pages of statements against the group in return for a lower sentence, preliminary court proceedings have shown.
The prime suspect in the case is 41-year old Ridouan Taghi, who remains at large. Through his lawyer, Taghi has denied all accusations. Other suspects, 11 of whom are in custody, have remained silent throughout the case so far.
Additional reporting by Anthony Deutsch; Editing by Catherine Evans, Andrew Cawthorne and Giles Elgood