Dutch lawyer defending witness in drug killings case shot dead

A police car and an ambulance are seen near the site after a shooting 2019. NTB Scanpix/Terje Pedersen via 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, police said, shocking the legal and political establishment.

Police said the victim was 44-year-old Derk Wiersum, a defence lawyer for Nabil Bakkali, a crown witness 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 a worrying upsurge of drug-related crime.

Bakkali’s brother, whom 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.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte called Wednesday’s shooting “extremely disturbing” and said leading law enforcement officials had convened crisis meetings.

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 national 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 over 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, middle-men and extortionists, of dubious notaries and real estate agents.”

Police said they were searching 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.