updated 2/7/2005 10:30:11 AM ET 2005-02-07T15:30:11

Prosecutors opened their case Monday against 12 men accused of belonging to a terror network suspected in the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh and plots to attack prominent Dutch politicians.

The defendants, mostly young Muslims of North African ancestry, were arrested within days of Van Gogh’s death on Nov. 2 — a killing that shocked the nation and triggered retaliatory attacks on Islamic sites.

Van Gogh, a distant relative of painter Vincent Van Gogh, was shot and stabbed on a busy Amsterdam street. The killer cut his throat and, in a note pinned to the filmmaker’s chest with a knife, threatened other attacks in the name of radical Islam.

“We’re facing an extremely radical group in the Netherlands,” prosecutor Koos Plooy said in an opening statement at the pretrial hearing. “The prosecution is convinced that their arrest prevented one or more very serious attacks.”

Suspects face maximum of life in prison
He said several suspects remain at large, including the so-called Hofstad Network network’s alleged spiritual leader.

The 12 are charged with conspiracy to commit murder in a terrorist attack, impeding democracy, threatening the lives of politicians, arson and illegal possession of firearms. They could face life in prison if convicted.

Prosecutors said they are also considering charging the group for conspiracy in Van Gogh’s murder. Several of the suspects had drafts of the death note on their computers, prosecutors said. Others carried a 115-page “Handbook for Jihad Warriors,” detailing how to plan and carry out murders.

The defendants all met at the home of the prime suspect in Van Gogh’s murder, 26-year-old Mohammed Bouyeri, another alleged member of the network. He is on trial separately in Amsterdam.

It is the second major terrorism trial in the Netherlands since the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, and the first in which prosecutors are using new terrorism laws giving them far-reaching powers of investigation and introducing stiffer sentences for terror-related crimes.

The Hofstad Network allegedly planned to attack Dutch lawmakers Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Geert Wilders. Hirsi Ali wrote the script for one of Van Gogh’s last movies, “Submission,” which criticized the treatment of women under Islam.

Ties to Spain, Belgium groups alleged
Prosecutors said the suspects have ties to fundamentalist groups in Belgium and Spain, including those behind the deadly bombings in Madrid and Casablanca. The name “Hofstad” was assigned at random by intelligence services and has no particular meaning.

The group’s alleged spiritual leader, 43-year-old Syrian named Redouan al-Issar, has so far has eluded arrest as has another member, Nouredine el Fahdi.

Several members of the group traveled to Pakistan, allegedly to receive training with weapons and explosives.

Two were arrested after a daylong standoff in The Hague on Nov. 10. They wounded police officers by a hand grenade during the arrest and face additional charges of attempted murder.

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