Dries van Agt, Former Dutch Prime Minister, Dies at 93

  • February 14, 2024

Dries van Agt, a Dutch politician and former prime minister of the Netherlands who became a pro-Palestinian activist later in life, died on Feb. 5 in his hometown, Nijmegen. He was 93.

He died “hand in hand” with his wife, Eugenie, also 93, in a joint act of euthanasia, according to The Rights Forum, an organization he founded that is dedicated to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The announcement of the couple’s euthanasia was a surprise to many people who knew Mr. van Agt as well as to Dutch society as a whole, said Gerard Jonkman, the director of the Rights Forum.

In 2019, Mr. van Agt had a stroke, which caused him to lose some of his faculties, Mr. Jonkman said. “He was in a bad physical condition toward the end,” he added. “That was very difficult for him.”

Mr. van Agt was prime minister from 1977 to 1982 as a conservative member of the centrist Christian Democratic Appeal party. He did advance some progressive laws, however, playing a crucial role, for example, in the decriminalization of the use of cannabis. He continued to move toward the political left later in life.

Mr. van Agt entered Dutch politics as a law professor after being approached to become justice minister under Prime Minister Barend Biesheuvel. “It started as a complete surprise,” he said in a 2015 interview with the Dutch public broadcaster that was aired posthumously. “Because never did I think that I could, that I would, become something like that.”

His political life was not without strife. He clashed with the Dutch parliament in 1972, when, as justice minister, he wanted to pardon three Germans who were serving life sentences in prison after being convicted of war crimes in World War II.

His reasoning, that the old men would no longer be a risk to society and that their imprisonment no longer served a purpose, faced strong opposition, prompting death threats and protests, and Mr. van Agt dropped the idea. (One of the men later died in prison; the other two were pardoned in the late 1980s.)

In the early summer of 1977, Mr. van Agt, who was still justice minister at the time, faced another challenge when a train was hijacked by South Moluccans, members of a large exile community in the Netherlands originally from a former Dutch Pacific island colony. Dutch marines ended the standoff by storming the train, killing six hijackers and two of their more than 50 hostages.

In 2014, a government report questioning the raid’s violent end and Mr. van Agt’s handling of the crisis concluded that three of the hijackers who had been shot and killed by marines had been unarmed, according to the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant.

Mr. van Agt’s government collapsed in 1982, and a new government was formed. He continued to be a member of Parliament for his party. He left Dutch politics in 1987 to become the European Union’s ambassador to Japan. He also went back to teaching.

Dries van Agt was born Andreas Antonius Maria van Agt on Feb. 2, 1931, in Geldrop, the Netherlands. His father was a textile manufacturer. Mr. van Agt studied law at the Catholic University of Nijmegen (now Radboud University Nijmegen).

While Mr. van Agt had expressed support for Israel as prime minister, he began advocating for Palestinian rights after a visit to Israel in 1999, which he called a “conversion” experience, according to The Associated Press.

He founded the Rights Forum in 2009 and was its chairman until 2015. In 2021, Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, granted Mr. van Agt a high Palestinian distinction, the Grand Star in the Order of Jerusalem.

Mr. van Agt is survived by his children, Eugenie, Frans and Caroline van Agt, as well as grandchildren.

Mr. van Agt and his wife were married for 65 years. But “he had a lot of regret that during his time as minister and prime minister he spent a lot of time away from his kids,” Mr. Jonkman said.

Mr. van Agt later took much pride in his grandchildren, one of whom became a professional cyclist, a passion of his, Mr. Jonkman said. Indeed, he added, Mr. van Agt loved cycling so much that he once left talks to form a new government in the 1970s to attend the Tour de France.

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