AMSTERDAM—Dutch authorities are detaining people in inhuman conditions at special terrorism prisons in De Schie and Vught, known in Dutch as terroristenafdeling (TA) or “terrorist units,” Amnesty International and the Open Society Justice Initiative said in a report released today.
Although authorities have stated their willingness to implement several reforms, the reforms do not fully address all of the troubling human rights concerns in the report. For that reason, the report recommends major legislative and regulatory improvements and calls for a prompt, thorough, independent, and impartial inspection, as well as stronger ongoing oversight, of the facilities to ensure their operation and the treatment of people inside comply with the Netherlands’ international human rights obligations.
The findings are based on interviews with 50 people, including 19 former TA detainees, and an extensive analysis of the Netherlands’ international human rights commitments.
Former detainees, and law enforcement officials as well, said the TA’s blanket high-security measures run at cross-purposes with the goal of protecting public security. Prosecutors have gone so far as to consider not charging a person with a terrorist offense to avoid the detrimental effects of placing a person in the TA.
The 60-page report, Inhuman and Unnecessary: Human Rights Violations in Dutch High-Security Prisons in the Context of Counterterrorism, reveals the various measures used in the two facilities, which include routinely confining people in individual cells often for between 19 and 22 hours a day while limiting their contact with others when they are outside their cells.
In three documented cases, these conditions amounted to prolonged solitary confinement, which international human rights standards strictly prohibit. Prison guards also routinely and frequently administer full-nudity body searches that are invasive and humiliating. Among other failures, people who are suspected of terrorist offenses—but have yet to be tried—are held in the TA alongside, and in the same conditions as, those who have been convicted. This undermines their right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.
A key deficiency in the TA is the fact that any person suspected or convicted of a terrorism-related offense is automatically placed in a TA facility. The authorities do not assess whether a particular detainee actually poses a concrete risk that would justify an individual’s detention in the TA in the first place. Detainees are also unable to effectively challenge their initial placement, ongoing detention, and any of the routine high security measures used against them.
“Many of the measures routinely used in the TA can unnecessarily isolate and humiliate people and as such violate the Netherland’s human rights obligations,” said Doutje Lettinga of Amnesty International Netherlands. “Even a person who poses no proven security threat can be held in one of the country’s harshest detention regimes.”
The authorities responsible for the TA have expressed a willingness to increase the amount of time detainees are allowed outside their cells with others and to introduce some tailor-made security measures and reintegration programs. But these reforms appear to be ad hoc, and potentially arbitrary, since some changes are at the sole discretion of the prison authorities, and there is very little transparency as to what objective criteria are being used as the basis for any changes within the high-security TA regime.
“We welcome the openness of the authorities to consider positive changes to the TA,” said Jonathan Horowitz of the Open Society Justice Initiative. “But any reforms must be carefully designed and implemented to ensure maximum transparency and compliance with the Netherlands’ human rights commitments. Security measures must not be excessive or arbitrary.”
The TA system is also characterized by constant surveillance which undermines detainees’ rights to privacy and family life. Many detainees said that they were under such constant surveillance that they refused to discuss personal and private family issues during visits with loved ones. This audio, video, and physical monitoring, in combination with the TA’s other security measures, turned their visits with children and spouses into superficial encounters and made it difficult for them to build and maintain family relationships.
The extensive monitoring also jeopardized or breached the principle of medical confidentiality in cases when guards were present during medical consultations, and created an additional chilling effect on the ability of detainees and lawyers to speak with one another in confidence.
Few educational and reintegration opportunities exist in the TA, making it all the more difficult for detainees to prepare for a meaningful return to society.
“The harsh treatment at the TA, together with its lack of reintegration opportunities carries a high risk of further alienating detainees and making them ill-equipped and unprepared to return to society,” said Horowitz. He added, “The TA ignores the responsibilities that Dutch penal institutions have toward social rehabilitation. Instead, the TA system can produce results that counter its goal of increasing safety and security.”
Amnesty International and the Open Society Justice Initiative call on the government to ensure that people are no longer automatically placed in the TA based solely on the charges against them. They also call on the government to cease using harsh security measures on detainees, such as prolonged restrictive confinement and invasive full-nudity body searches, without assessing if such measures are necessary and proportionate. Detainees must also be given the ability to effectively challenge their initial placement, ongoing detention, and any of the high security measures used against them to ensure they comply with international human rights law and standards. The organizations also call for a prompt, thorough, independent, and impartial inspection of the TA’s compliance with international human rights law.
The first of the specialized high-security TA detention units opened in the Netherlands in 2006 at a prison facility in Vught (Penitentiaire Inrichting Vught). Another one was created in 2007 at the De Schie prison in Rotterdam (Penitentiare Inrichting De Schie). To date, over 160 people have passed through the TA. The two TAs together have a combined holding capacity of 48.