Interview with Ms. Diewerke Stikkelbroeck (Dutch National Prosecutor’s Office)

Please, briefly introduce yourself.

I have been a prosecutor for eight years; my section in the Prosecutor’s Office is responsible for cases of trafficking in human beings and international OC. I have to say that about 60% of the prosecutors in the Netherlands are women; it’s a female profession. My decision to join the prosecution was to be able to help the victims of crimes, I’ve always found that the most important aspect of my job.

Tell us about the structure of the prosecution office in Netherlands? What are the specific responsibilities of the prosecutors? Do you have a specialized court/prosecution in the fight against organized crime?

The Public Prosecution Service is accountable to two separate authorities; on the one hand, the courts review the conduct of the Public Prosecution Service and the police services. At the same time, the Minister of Justice has political responsibility for the Department’s performance, and he may be called upon to respond to both houses of the Dutch Parliament. Policy is therefore always on the agenda in consultations between the Public Prosecution Service and the Minister. The Minister is concerned with the general policy on investigation and prosecution. Only rarely does he intervene in individual cases, although he may issue instructions to the Department’s officers after consulting the Board of Procurators General.

The organization of the Public Prosecution Service corresponds to the various types of courts in the Netherlands. First, there are sub-district courts, then the district courts, the courts of appeal and finally, the Supreme Court. The National Public Prosecutor’s Office (NPPO) is the link between the Public Prosecution Service and the intelligence and security services. One of its tasks is to develop new methods for investigating financial crimes, such as money laundering. The Office is also in charge of coordinating the efforts in combating terrorism, trafficking in persons and similar crimes. The Board of Procurators General has tasked the National Prosecutor’s Office with the development of expertise in special investigation powers and ICT crimes, as well.

The NPPO often participates in the criminal law work of other public prosecution offices, providing assistance and prosecution-related services, such as infiltration and witness protection, coordination of the deployment of the Central Criminal Intelligence Division. Different offices have jurisdiction over different criminal activities: the office of NPPO in Amsterdam is in charge of heroin-related crimes; in Rotterdam – of cocaine and terrorism; in Den Bosch – synthetic drugs; in Zwolle – human trafficking/people smuggling. My home court is Rotterdam, so for every case I have to travel from my office to Rotterdam and other cities, as cases are tried in the jurisdiction where the crime was committed.

We work nationally, but there is no specialized structure as the one in Bulgaria. Within our office we have 25 people; and over 200 in total of the NPPO. On average, prosecutors will have about 30 cases, working on them simultaneously. Currently, I have 8 different investigations, at different stages of development. One of the cases involves Bulgarian suspects and victims, from the city of Sliven. We have a Joint Investigation Team working on the case.

What are the criteria for a case to be considered an organized crime case? Formal criteria (e.g. number of members of the organized crime group - OCG?)

The formal criteria generally involve: a group of two or more persons, which was not randomly formed; a period of existence of the group; the group acting in concert with the aim of committing crimes; crimes committed in order to obtain directly or indirectly, a financial or other material gain (or power). In my work, the OCG I have investigated have been larger than just two persons.

What are the typical criminal activities for OCGs in Netherlands?

Among the typical are drug trafficking, money laundering, fraud, human trafficking, smuggling of people, arms smuggling. It’s hard to give a percentage for OC and conventional crime; it’s easier to register conventional crimes, because the victims complain to the police. We’ve had an organized crime group coming from Poland and committing burglaries, and this is also organized crime.

Is trafficking one of the typical crimes for Bulgarian citizens? From your experience, do Bulgarians cooperate with criminals from other countries, incl. Dutch citizens, in trafficking? What do you think makes the Netherlands attractive for Bulgarian criminals?

In general, some typical crimes are shoplifting, housebreaking / burglary, trafficking in human beings (THB), trafficking for sexual exploitation. For me though, I would say trafficking in human beings. In 2010, 5% of the convicted perpetrators in the Netherlands were Bulgarian nationals. Bulgarian groups do not cooperate with Dutch groups; I think it’s because they want to keep the profits to themselves. Also, we’ve noticed that each organized group prefers to stay with their own victims, e.g. Bulgarian criminals stay with victims who are also Bulgarian. That’s because the crime of trafficking requires communication between the perpetrators and the victims, and it’s easier if they speak the same language. In this way, victims or perpetrators can say, ‘She’s my girlfriend” or “He’s my boyfriend,” to avoid charges of trafficking.

Currently, we have many cases of THB involving Bulgarian citizens in Utrecht, there are also many in Amsterdam.

Do you see any connection between the existing regulations of prostitution in the Netherlands and THB? How does legalizing prostitution affect THB and the fight against it?

Prostitution in Netherlands is legal. There is a license system for prostitution, and local authorities are in charge of monitoring it. There is prohibition for the employment of minors. Essential is that the compliance with the license is strictly monitored on a regular basis. Some police regions have special prostitution teams that supervise the prostitution areas.

In the Netherlands, we treat prostitution as any other profession, even though I don’t believe prostitution is a regular profession like that of a doctor, or a prosecutor, etc. But since the system is such, it’s hard to convince the judges in court, for example, that the prostitutes are not doing it on their own will. So, in a way, we are treating a problem that is not only a Dutch problem – trafficking, prostitution, sexual exploitation, in a Dutch way, considering it as the right of a woman to choose her profession.

So, we usually appeal each case in which a pimp or trafficker has been acquitted; we’re doing awareness raising to inform people that these girls and women have been brought to the Netherlands to be exploited. We need to gain more media attention to explain that 80% to 90% of prostitutes in the Netherlands are victims. I believe the judges need more specialization in order to recognize these cases and not let the perpetrators free when they need to be in prison. We can now also start investigations even if the girl does not approach us, we can start an investigation if we detect suspicious money transactions, etc.

Basically, we still believe that prostitution should be legal, but should be more strictly monitored. If you come to the Netherlands, you register and you get a work permit, prostitutes can register as self-employed. So, the idea is to introduce more tools to control who’s coming and what they’re working, etc., but the public opinion still supports the legalization of prostitution. With more regulations we can probably better control it.

How many OC cases annually, on average, do you have in the Netherlands? How many of these cases end up with guilty verdicts? What is the average sentence given?

Cases for OC are around 150-200 per year; between 50-70% of the cases end up with guilty verdicts. But the terms of the verdicts are still very low; in 2010, the sentences were approximately 1.8 years imprisonment for trafficking for sexual exploitation and 1.4 years imprisonment for labor exploitation charges. There was one big case involving a trafficker from Turkey; he got 15 years, he was really violent, had 6 women working for him. But the court gave him permission to visit his family and he escaped! He escaped to Turkey, and because Turkey doesn’t have extradition agreements with the Netherlands, he most likely will go free. Still, I hope we’ll be able to get him, one way or another.

In terms of verdicts, the prosecutors have some guidelines that we follow for sentencing and we always ask for higher sentences, but the decision depends on the judge. A troubling statistics I’ve heard is that from a 100 cases of THB, almost 50% of the perpetrators go free. The reason is that in the last ten years or so, pimps and traffickers have changed the way they recruit girls: in the past, they used to be more violent; today they use more ‘soft’ approaches to get their girls. They’d say, for instance, they love the girls; they care for them, etc. In terms of the length of the trial, it usually takes about 9 months to complete a case in court. THB cases are complex, esp. with the interrogation of witnesses, but it will take mostly a year.

Tell us about any special investigative instruments to fight organized crime in your country. Do you have specific legislation targeting OC?

We have many, such as wire tapping; I think Netherlands is one of the countries with the highest rate of wiretapping orders, and they are granted easily. We also use surveillance, special technical devices; we do operations under cover, such as pseudo purchases, etc. This can be decided by the prosecutor only, but I need a court decision from a judge to get into someone’s house to do a search. The problem is not so much that the court needs to grant the request; rather we don’t have the capacity, the manpower to work on so many cases.

At what point in the investigation do you request a freeze of the criminals’ assets? Does the prosecution rely on civil or penal procedures for criminal asset forfeiture?

The day they get arrested, you can freeze their assets. It is also possible to freeze their assets if they are only a suspect. The seized property is under the protection of the court until the court trial ends and they get a verdict. Many criminals transfer their assets to other people and then you need to follow another procedure. We have an Asset Recovery Office that deals with asset forfeiture; usually, we need their assistance when it is a question of larger size of property, or property abroad.

Confiscating the money of the criminals is the best way to fight crime; it hits them hard when we get their property. Last year the confiscated money was 50 million euro and it all goes to the state, as I said. This is not a lot, though; the estimates are that billions in criminal assets are acquired each year, and it’s only this small amount that we can recover.

What is the share of the confiscated assets in money laundering cases and in civil cases in the Netherlands? How is this money managed? Do you have a special fund that operates with this money, what is its structure?

If you’re sentenced to pay a fine, the criminal’s property will be used to pay the fine. At other times, if a car was part of the crime, the car is also confiscated. But we don’t have a special fund, all of the confiscated property goes to the state; the state distributes it and uses it for various purposes, it could be transferred to other organizations which can help manage the money, or organizations which help victims, etc.

Tell us about the access to information – bank information, tax info, corporate information? Is there a central registry for such information, do you have electronic access to information?

We usually communicate with the banks and they give us the information we need; it works fairly easy and it’s fast. It takes longer when we request information from airlines or Western Union. We don’t have direct access to people’s accounts or anything.

Have you participated in joint investigation with Bulgarian prosecutors? How do you see this cooperation? Do you find the JITs in which you have participated successful?

We cooperate well; our job is made easier because some of the legislation we use to try crimes is international conventions. We cannot prosecute here, but we can ask the Bulgarian colleagues for assistance. But when we start a case, and if there is a guilty verdict, the criminal proceeds for instance will return to Bulgaria. We can also try criminals in the Netherlands, if the crime was committed in the Netherlands, we can sentence them and the confiscation would still benefit Bulgaria. What strikes me the most in the cooperation process is the similarity of the systems in Bulgaria and the Netherlands; we also work with the UK, for instance, but their system is very different and it makes the cooperation harder. It’s easier to work with the Bulgarian colleagues in this respect. The JITs with Bulgarian colleagues (we are working with prosecutors from Sliven now) have been very effective, because we can communicate directly, no paper work in the mail is needed, they can come to Netherlands, we’re travelling to Bulgaria, etc. What I find difficult is the language barrier; none of the Bulgarian colleagues speak English and using an interpreter prevents the swift communication on many occasions.

Of course, the other EU countries are more advanced and have more experience, but I see that Bulgaria is also trying hard to catch up. The Bulgarian colleagues are open and share the information we need. At the same time, the international partners have to realize that they have much better working conditions compared to their Bulgarian counterparts. I know that the office in Sliven is not as well equipped as my office in the Netherlands; they don’t have the latest computers, etc. So we have to think of opportunities to work together, to support each other better.

Last question: Do you consider the establishment of specialized court and prosecution – in general, and in Bulgaria in particular, necessary?

Having national authorities that oversee the process is a good working solution, so from that point of view, I think a structure such as this should help in the fight against organized crime.

What would you say to your Bulgarian colleagues?
Be creative! The criminals know a lot and we have to find ways to be ahead of them. Every time we have a crime case, we go for a wire tap, but the criminals know this and find ways around it. So, being creative is what we all need in order to succeed.

interviewer: Snezhina Atanassova