A rebel fighter takes aim at regime forces in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on Sept. 1, 2013. Louai Abo al-Jod/AFP/Getty Images
A Dutch court Wednesday convicted two men of “preparing to commit murder" because they planned to join rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. The prosecution said the case sets a legal precedent in the Netherlands for people who plan to fight in Syria.
The two Dutch citizens, publicly identified only as Mohammed G., age 24, and Omar H., age 22, were arrested in November last year, the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad reported. Mohammed G. had bought an airplane ticket to Turkey, terminated his apartment lease and told social services that he would be abroad for a while, the newspaper said.
It said the trial was likely the first of its kind in Western Europe.
The two men "wanted to go to Syria to fight and the court felt that they were in particular preparing to kill people," Catelijn van Breevoort, spokeswoman of the Rotterdam Court, told Agence France-Presse (AFP).
Public prosecutors had sought a jail sentence of three years for Omar H., based on a new law that makes it illegal to undergo training in preparation for "terrorist crimes" – a law that had never been invoked before in the Netherlands, the NRC Handelsblad said.
The court did not convict the men based on the new law, as it decided that they intended to fight rather than train. They were instead found guilty of preparing for murder, planning "arson or explosions" and adhering to "jihadist ideas," the verdict said.
The Rotterdam court found that Mohammed G. had recurrent psychological problems, and sent him to a psychiatric hospital for treatment. Omar H. was sentenced to a year in jail, with four months suspended.
"This is the first time that the Netherlands hands down such a judgment and this helps clarify the fact that it's illegal to go to Syria to fight," prosecution spokesman Paul van der Zonden told AFP.
"Which means that we now have a legal precedent and can prosecute other people wanting to go to Syria or coming back," he said.
Between 50 and 100 Dutch citizens have gone to fight in Syria, Cyntha van Gorp, spokeswoman of the Dutch Ministry of Security and Justice, told Al Jazeera in an email. About 30 have returned, and six were killed. They are among growing numbers of men across Western Europe who have reportedly been joining fighters opposing Assad's government in Syria.
Van Gorp said Dutch security officials in March increased the national attack threat from "limited" to "substantial," the second-highest level, "due to the risk of young guys who return disillusioned and traumatized from Syria."
Still, Van Gorp said the number of men coming home from Syria represented only a "handful" of people.
Jan Jaap de Ruiter, a lecturer at the Tilburg University and commentator on radicalization processes among Islamic youth, also underscored the fact that the situation involved very few individuals in the Netherlands, where about 825,000 Muslims comprise 5 percent of the population. "We have to place this in perspective a bit," he told Al Jazeera.
He said that the men’s case had received excessive media attention, and that he believed "the judge has let himself be inspired by the societal climate against Islam." He referred to findings in a research report by a regional human rights watchdog, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (PDF).
"The settlement of Eastern Europeans in the Netherlands, as well as Islam and Muslims have been portrayed by politicians and media as a threat to Dutch society," the report said.
In neighboring Belgium, 18-year-old Jejoen Bontinck was arrested Friday for allegedly fighting alongside Syrian rebel forces following a recruiting call from Fouad Belkacem, leader of Sharia4Belgium, Belgian media reported.
With wire services