Chief Prosecutor Hans Wesselink: “St. Maarten has become a part of me”

POSTED: 10/7/13 12:48 PM

Hans Wesselink (1)

Chief Prosecutor Mr. Hans Wesselink. Photo Today / Hilbert Haar

St. Maarten /Hilbert Haar – The good news comes at the end of the interview with Mr. Hans Wesselink, the interim Chief Prosecutor at the Public Prosecutor’s Office. “There are serious contacts with a candidate that is interested to become Chief Prosecutor in St. Maarten for a longer period. Hopefully he will arrive here before I leave on March 1 of next year.”

Wesselink came to the rescue of St. Maarten when, after the return of his predecessor Mr. Hans Mos to the Netherlands, there was no successor available immediately. The (almost) 67-year-old was a logical choice to fill the gap, because he is no stranger to the Antillean islands and to St. Maarten in particular. From 1989 to 1993 he functioned as Chief Prosecutor on the island.

Not everybody was immediately enthusiast about hiring a Chief Prosecutor on a 6-month contract. “He’ll need two months to acclimatize and after that he is almost leaving again,” is a remark we heard, but Wesselink dismisses that notion. “I am here for six months because it was not possible to find a new chief prosecutor in time, but also because I would be able to get accustomed to the situation because I have been here before. I have eight Antillean years behind me and I know St. Maarten reasonable well. I did not need two months to get used to this environment, I think I achieved that within the first week.”

Wesselink adds that the way people have opened up to him has been a positive experience. “That makes working pleasurable. I have not had for a single moment the idea that people thought, gosh, there is the umpteenth Dutchman.”

The way people react to the amicable chief prosecutor has also something to do with the way he himself has experienced his previous stints in the tropics. “If you have worked in the Antilles for eight years then that is not only a rich experience. It also does something with you. It is not just soaking up knowledge in a different society. I do not look so much at St. Maarten as a different society; it has become a part of me. I don’t feel like I am working in a foreign country, but like I am working in a society that also contains a piece of me.”

Wesselink says that he expects his prosecutors to adopt the same approach. “They should not remain the outsider who is constantly thinking: that ought to be done differently. We have to be aware of what is possible in this community. There is only a small group we are able to call upon for the type of work that we are doing.”

What is the difference with twenty years ago, when Wesselink left St. Maarten?

“The Public Prosecutor’s Office has been professionalized enormously. There are now six prosecutors next to the chief prosecutor. That impressive growth was necessary. St. Maarten is a country with specific circumstances and a special position. The land surface and the number of inhabitants are not really large, but the problems are.”

In this context Wesselink refers to the presence of the international airport and the number of arrivals it brings to the island, the cruise arrivals, the container port and the national border that exists legally and constitutionally, but that is not there in a practical sense for the island’s citizens. “This is a unique island in a unique situation, and it is a country. Under those circumstances you need a well-functioning Public Prosecutor’s Office and judiciary to make sure that the judicial maintenance of the legal order is in good hands.”

One thing stood out, Wesselink says: “I noted that apparently it has been easier to recruit prosecutors than support staff. That is the basis of the office and in my opinion it did not keep up with the increase in the number of prosecutors. The support staff is doing highly necessary work that enables the prosecutors to do their jobs properly. In that area we need reinforcement.”

The time he will spend in St. Maarten, Wesselink says he wants to initiate a number of projects that are essential for the proper functioning of the prosecutor’s office. Bringing in more support staff is one element; selecting cases with a reasonable chance of success in court a second one.

“I do not have the illusion that all of this will be ready by the time I leave in March,” he says. “But my successor will be able to get on a moving train and he’ll have to make sure that it stays on course. Reinforcing the organization is not something I will be able to do alone. It has to be accomplished with the people that are working here. They are prepared to do this and they are convinced that it is in the interest of the organization. Nobody will be worse off because of it; people will only become better at what they do.”

The selections of cases the prosecutor’s office presents in court is a second issue Wesselink wants to address. “These cases must have a reasonable chance to end with a decision by the court and this has to happen within a reasonable term. Sometimes you have to impose limitation on yourself.”

This means, in short, that it is in Wesselink’s opinion more effective to go for a manageable part of an investigation than to keep on digging for more information. “Leaving no stone unturned requires an enormous amount of capacity and the question remains whether you are going to find something. That consideration has to be taken into account always, not only in St. Maarten but elsewhere as well.”

Grumblings about the slow progress made by the National Detective Agency (Landsrecherche) in quite a number of investigations do not ring true with Wesselink. “My impression is that the people are doing what is possible that they are hard at work. Sometimes there are problems with limited resources or limited manpower but I do not recognize a situation that there is a lack of results because people are not working hard enough.”

The chief prosecutor points out that criminal investigations are time consuming and labor intensive but above all, he says, there is a cohesive methodology, a complex of activities. “Therefore I would not play the ball back to the National Detective Agency or the police.”

Asked about life sentences, Wesselink declines to give an opinion. Life sentences became a topic in St. Maarten after the appeals court overturned the life sentence for the two Regatta-killers in 2012 and after the Court in First Instance sentenced two suspects in the Vesuvius-investigation to life imprisonment. Both cases are still pending (the Regatta-ruling could still be appealed at the Supreme Court and the Vesuvius-sentences are still awaiting appeal).

Wesselink: “The Public prosecutor’s Office is executing the law. Whether I find it human to lock someone up for life is a personal vision. In this function I stick to the law and to jurisprudence.”

A recent ruling from the European Human Rights Court has the potential to further undermine life sentences, not only in Europe but also in the Caribbean countries of the Kingdom. But these rulings do not beforehand influence the prosecutor’s office position. “There is always influence from jurisprudence,” Wesselink says. “But to consider effects that could possibly take place beforehand – I do not agree with that. The prosecutor’s office has to work with what is current law, with the way the community thinks about the criminal justice climate.”

Punishments are linked to the person of the suspect, the extent to which a suspect is accountable for his actions, the crime itself and the circumstances under which it was committed, Wesselink says. The impact of a crime on the community and the maximum sentence the law has established also play a role. “All these factors have to be balanced. If you issue punishments the community considers absolutely insufficient you run the risk that people will take the law into their own hands.”

Wesselink spent a couple of months in Rwanda after the genocide. Almost half a million Hutus were locked up in old Belgian prisons in the country. Wesselink’s role was to advise the Dutch government about a possible contribution to restoring law and order in the country. “You have to balance things,” he says, before explaining the special custom African countries like Rwanda have to deal with the situation.

“They have a system whereby there is a possibility of reconciliation if a suspect acknowledges guilt to the community he lives in. If he does certain things for the community he will be accepted again. This was the only possible solution. It is unimaginable for a small country like Rwanda to keep close to half a million people lock up. The hard core of a couple of hundred Hutus that were the brains behind the genocide has been convicted.”

Wesselink: “As long as a society accepts that and it is able to live with it, I will not be the one to say that they should actually follow a procedure with the independent judge. You constantly have to search for a balance between your personal opinions and that what a society considers a good way of dealing with criminality.”


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