Two police officers have been found guilty of causing the death of Aruban holidaymaker Mitch Henriquez by assault and given six months suspended jail sentences.
The court in The Hague ruled that the precise cause of Henriquez’ death could not be determined but that it is extremely likely the choke hold used by one of the officers was a major cause. The judges did dismissed defence claims that he had died of an ‘acute stress syndrome’.
Judges also said the prolonged use of the choke hold by one officer and the use of pepper spray by the other as he hit Henriquez in the face, were unlawful.
Henriquez died in July 2015, a day after being arrested by a team of five officers at the Zuiderpark in The Hague. Police said they responded after he claimed to be carrying a gun.
The public prosecution department said the officers were guilty of assault but should not be punished as they are suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome and that their families have been threatened.
Video footage of the scene showed the 42-year-old being restrained using a choke hold before his motionless body was bundled into a police van. His death triggered several nights of rioting in The Hague’s Schilderswijk district, where there has been a history of tension between the police and the large minority ethnic population.
Two of the five officers were charged with fatally assaulting Henriquez after an initial pathologist’s report concluded that he had died as a result of the choke hold. All five have been internally disciplined by the police but none has been dismissed.
During the trial, the prosecution said it had concluded on the basis of other expert witnesses that his death was caused by acute stress syndrome and the officers could not be held responsible. However the forensic pathologist who actually examined his body said the choke hold was to blame.
Most of Henriquez’s family walked out of the last days of the trial after it emerged that the prosecution had based its case on low-quality video footage of his arrest. The films were copied from better quality originals which were produced in court by defence lawyer Richard Korver.
Korver also called two police lip-readers to study the video footage in court. The witnesses said police officers had said to each other ‘Seems dead to me’ and ‘he’s stopped responding’.
But defence lawyers for the officers claimed that their words were being misinterpreted and that they had said Henriquez was ‘dead tired’ rather than dead.
Korver told reporters after the verdict that Henriquez’ relatives are relieved that the police officers have been found responsible for his death.
However, they are disappointed that the officers will escape jail, Korver said.