The Dutch government has pledged to firmly maintain the nationwide Covid-19 curfew after the country was rocked by three nights of street violence and riots.
Violent protests have been taking place in cities across the Netherlands since Saturday evening, a day before the country’s first curfew was imposed since World War II. Rioters in more than a dozen cities, including Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Eindhoven, looted shops, attacked police cars, and in some cases threw stones at hospitals.
Mark Rutte, Dutch Prime Minister, condemned “criminal violence” which he said had nothing to do with “the struggle for freedom”. The Dutch police association said the violence in the streets was the worst the country had seen in 40 years.
“We must win the fight against the virus together, because only then can we regain our freedom,” said the Prime Minister.
Police said the rioters were mainly young men who had organized the violence using online messaging platforms such as Telegram. Hubert Bruls, president of the Dutch Security Council which oversees health and public safety in the country, accused “copying” behavior.
“It is terrible to see that a few thousand people across the country have been holding us hostage for the past few days because of the violence they are committing,” he said.
A host of government ministers have said the Netherlands will maintain the 9 p.m. to 4:30 a.m. curfew, which was put in place to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Speaking ahead of an emergency cabinet meeting to discuss the riots, Finance Minister Wopke Hoekstra said the government would “not capitulate to a few idiots.”
Rather than being politically motivated, the unrest was blamed on small groups of young men who are not politically organized. Amsterdam police said they identified football hooligans among the rioters.
“I see 20 and 21 year old boys who are at the start of their working life, but they will receive a claim for damages because they found it necessary to loot a supermarket,” Justice Minister Ferdinand Grapperhaus said. .
The riots come as the country prepares for the March elections that will test Mr Rutte’s popularity after more than a decade in power.
He holds the post of interim prime minister after his cabinet was forced to resign due to a benefits scandal this month.
Mr Rutte’s government gradually resorted to stricter containment measures after coronavirus infections increased rapidly from late 2020.
While the prime minister was applauded during the virus’s first phase, his government has since come under fire for being too slow to reintroduce lockdown measures.
The Netherlands also rolled out its Covid-19 vaccination program much later than most countries in the EU and has the second-worst vaccination rate in the bloc after Bulgaria.
Mr Grapperhaus said local police have been given the power to impose immediate and unconditional prison sentences on rioters, who will also have to pay the cost of damage to property.
Police said 184 arrests were made across the country as of Monday evening, with 1,741 fines imposed for breaking curfew rules. This follows the arrest of hundreds more over the weekend.