Friday, December 12, 2008

Ayaan Hirsi Ali goes to court over her security

Anti-Islam campaigner Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who now lives and works in the US, has always maintained that the Dutch government should remain financially responsible for her security.
The Dutch government claims it always made it clear to Ayaan Hirsi Ali that it could not continue to pay for her security now that she lives abroad. But the Somali-born campaigner, who has Dutch nationality, is preparing to take the dispute to court. This week two high-profile Dutch public figures - a former government minister and the head of the country’s counter-terrorist body - have appeared before judicial hearings in The Hague.
Hirsi Ali’s vocal criticism of Islam have brought her international fame and numerous threats to her life. The man who killed the Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh in 2002 pinned a note to the body explicitly threatening Hirsi Ali. Van Gogh and Hirsi Ali worked together on the controversial short film Submission.
Before she moved to the US more than two years ago, Hirsi Ali was heavily protected by the Dutch government. She lived in safe houses and travelled only in armoured cars, with a team of bodyguards by her side. But the Dutch government stopped paying for the security in October 2007, over a year after her move to the US where she now works for a neo-conservative think-tank.

Extremely worried
In her legal action against the Dutch state, Hirsi Ali has called on several witnesses. Wednesday saw the questioning of two key figures in the affair. The first was Gerrit Zalm, a former finance minister and ex-leader of the right-wing Liberal VVD party to which Hirsi Ali belonged. The second witness was the head of the counter-terrorist organisation, Tjibbe Joustra who is responsible for the protection of Dutch politicians.
Both were asked if their conversations with Hirsi Ali could have led her to believe the government would keep on protecting her after her move to the US.
Zalm told the judicial hearing that he had done everything in his power to ensure that Hirsi Ali would continue to be protected after she left the Netherlands. He said he repeatedly urged the justice minister and the US ambassador at the time to ensure that the former politician would get security. They said everything would be arranged. And that’s what he told Hirsi Ali, who was extremely worried about her safety.
Political mentor
Hirsi Ali said she considered Zalm’s reassuring words as confirmation that the Dutch cabinet would take care of her security, at home and abroad. But naturally, said Zalm yesterday, as finance minister he had not become involved with security arrangements. He acted - and this was “completely clear to Hirsi Ali” - as her friend and political mentor.
Nevertheless he made extensive use of his position as minister. His talks with the US ambassador were held in the ministerial office "while enjoying a glass of American whiskey". He used cabinet meetings to approach the justice minister about Hirsi Ali’s security.
When it looked like Hirsi Ali would lose her Dutch passport in 2006 because she had lied about her name during her asylum request in 1992, Zalm asked his ministry’s lawyers for advice on her legal position.
Hirsi Ali continued to be guarded by Dutch security officials when she went to the US in Augustus 2006. But it was never the intention of the Dutch government to do this “indefinitely”, said Zalm yesterday.
The Americans would take over at a certain point, or at least, that was the cabinet expected. But it was not long before Zalm heard from the Dutch justice minister that this assumption was incorrect. According to US law, private individuals are not entitled to permanent security. The cabinet decided it was then up to Hirsi Ali or her American employer to take over responsibility for her security.

Transition agreement
At the hearing, Hirsi Ali's lawyer Britta Böhler tried to establish whether Hirsi Ali had been told unequivocally that her security arrangements were temporary. Had Zalm explicitly told his ward that “The Netherlands is stopping, the Americans are not taking it over, and your security is up to you?” Böhler asked.
Zalm didn't think he did, but said he couldn't really remember. Hirsi Ali must have been aware of the fact, he said. In conversations about her security the phrase “transition agreement” was always used and that implied a temporary period.
Böhler put the same question to the second witness, counter-terrorism chief Tjibbe Joustra. He was responsible for Hirsi Ali's security and had regular discussions about it with her. But at the hearing he could not remember much about them.
Böhler: “Was it clear to her that the security arrangements were temporary?”
Joustra: “If you say, 'I am not giving an exact end date' [for the US security] then it is clear that there is an end date.”
Böhler: “Was she told what this would mean to her?”
Joustra: “I don't know. Doubtless.”
Böhler: “Did you say 'you will then have to take care of your own security'?”
Joustra: “I do not know if it was said, literally. It was the theme of the discussion. Hirsi Ali is extremely intelligent and can draw her own conclusions.”
Böhler: “How did she react when she heard the security was being stopped?”
Joustra: “I really cannot remember.”
On just one point Zalm and Joustra seemed to have a different recollection of what had
happened. Zalm no longer knows whether Hirsi Ali discovered the US would not take charge of her security before or after she left. Joustra knew it before her departure and Hirsi Ali knew it as well, he said. Even though he had to admit he himself never told her.
Lawyer Bert-Jan Houtzagers who was at the hearing on behalf of the state, had just one question to witnesses: had they explicitly told Hirsi Ali that the state would be financially responsible for her security, even if she moved abroad? Both witnesses had good memories on that score: no.
Two other witnesses will be heard next Thursday. After those hearings Hirsi Ali's lawyers will decide whether she wants to pursue a court case to demand the Dutch government accept its responsibility for her protection.

Day Opening - December 12

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