Dutch justice minister vows rioters will be prosecuted

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A firefighter extinguishes a a container that was set alight during protests against a nation-wide curfew in Rotterdam, Netherlands, Monday, Jan. 25, 2021. The Netherlands Saturday entered its toughest phase of anti-coronavirus restrictions to date, imposing a nationwide night-time curfew from 9 p.m. until 4:30 a.m. in a bid to control the COVID-19 infection rate. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — People arrested during three nights of rioting sparked by the Netherlands’ new coronavirus curfew will face swift prosecution, the Dutch justice minister said Tuesday as the nation faced its worst civil unrest in years.

Minister Ferd Grapperhaus said rioters would be quickly brought before the courts by public prosecutors and will face possible prison terms if convicted.

“They won’t get away with it,” he told reporters in The Hague.

The rioting, initially triggered by anger over the country’s tough coronavirus lockdown, has been increasingly fueled by calls for rioting swirling on social media. The violence has stretched the police and led at times to the deployment of military police.

Grapperhaus spoke after a third night of rioting hit towns and cities in the Netherlands, with the most serious clashes and looting of stores in the port city of Rotterdam and the southern cathedral city of Den Bosch.

“If you rob people who are struggling, with the help of the government, to keep their head above water, it’s totally scandalous,” Grapperhaus told reporters. He stressed that the 9 p.m. to 4:30 a.m. curfew is a necessary measure in the fight against the coronavirus.

Rotterdam Mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb posted a video message on Twitter, asking rioters: “Does it feel good to wake up with a bag full of stolen stuff next to you?”

He also appealed to parents of the young rioters, asking: “Did you miss your son yesterday? Did you ask yourself where he was?”

The municipality in Den Bosch designated large parts of the city as risk areas for Tuesday night, fearing a repeat of the violence. Residents in Den Bosch took to the streets Tuesday to help with the cleanup as the city’s mayor said he would investigate authorities’ response to the rioting.

A total of 184 people were arrested in Monday night’s unrest and police ticketed more than 1,700 for breaching the curfew, a fine of 95 euros ($115). Officers around the country also detained dozens suspected of inciting rioting through social media.

Police said rioters threw stones, fireworks and Molotov cocktails at officers.

“This criminal violence must stop,” Prime Minister Mark Rutte tweeted.

“The riots have nothing to do with protesting or struggling for freedom,” he added. “We must win the battle against the virus together, because that’s the only way of getting back our freedom.”

The unrest began Saturday night — the first night of the curfew — when youths in the fishing village of Urk torched a coronavirus testing center. It escalated significantly with violence in the southern city of Eindhoven and the capital, Amsterdam.

Gerrit van der Burg, the most senior Dutch public prosecutor, said authorities are “committed to tracking down and prosecuting people who committed crimes. Count on it that they will be dealt with harshly.”

The rate of new infections in Netherlands has been decreasing in recent weeks, but the government is keeping up the tough lockdown, citing the slow pace of the decline and fears of new, more transmissible virus variants. The country has registered more than 13,650 confirmed COVID-19 deaths.

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