Dutch prince picks love over throne

Thomas Fuller
International Herald Tribune

AMSTERDAM In any other country on the European Continent this might be a story consigned to the society pages or gossip columns. But the Dutch take their royal marriages seriously, and disclosures that a prince's fiancée once had a relationship with a gangster has been front-page news here for two weeks.

On Friday, the story climaxed with Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende announcing on television that his government would not officially endorse the marriage of Prince Johan Friso and Mabel Wisse Smit, who are both 35.

The couple "had provided information that was not complete and not correct," which had harmed the confidence of the government, the prime minister said.

They plan to marry anyway, Balkenende said, but Friso, who was second in line to the throne, can no longer become king.

The announcement Friday capped two weeks of cacophonous debate in the Netherlands. The prince's wedding plans elicited countless letters to the editor and spirited arguments on talk shows. George Soros, the American billionaire philanthropist, wrote a letter supporting Wisse Smit. And opposition politicians called for a full inquiry before the government made its decision on whether to approve the marriage, a necessary step under Dutch law.

The prince "has to be as white as snow to be in a position so near to the throne," Eef Brouwers, a spokesman for the government, said by telephone after the announcement.

Wisse Smit was investigated by the Dutch intelligence services and interviewed by the queen and three times by the prime minister.

The problem, Brouwers said, is that the erstwhile princess "did not tell all the facts, even not to the queen herself."

The controversy turns on the suggestion that Wisse Smit once had a relationship with Klaas Bruinsma, a notoriously violent drugpin who was murdered in Amsterdam in 1991 amid a gangland struggle over his marijuana and cocaine empire.

Wisse Smit initially said she knew Bruinsma only superficially. But last week one of Bruinsma's former bodyguards said the pair had been lovers. Wisse Smit denied this but admitted that she had spent several nights on Bruinsma's sailboat and had known him "for a few months" when she was a student.

She broke things off when she learned of "the practices he engaged in," according to a statement issued by the palace.

A friend of Wisse Smit's, Ottolien Lels, partly corroborated the story by saying it was she, Lels, who had a sexual relationship with Bruinsma, not Wisse Smit.

"I am that woman," Lels said, according to Dutch press accounts. "Only the truth can help right injustice," Lels was quoted as saying.

On Thursday, Soros and a dozen other powerful friends and colleagues of Wisse Smit entered the fray to defend her. In an open letter published in De Volkskrant, Soros, Bernard Kouchner, the former French health minister, and Emma Bonino, a former member of the European Commission and former candidate for the Italian presidency, said "as friends and colleagues, we support her totally."

Wisse Smit has worked at the United Nations, helped set up a charitable organization in the Balkans and currently runs the Brussels office of the Open Society Institute, a nonprofit organization founded by Soros.

The letter published in De Volkskrant said, "It is shocking that a person who has done so much for human rights in the world should be treated so badly in her own country because of a dubious accusation about an issue dating back 15 years, when she was in her early 20's."

Reached by telephone before the prime minister's announcement, Wisse Smit described the dispute over her wedding plans as "very complicated" and a "media situation." But she declined to comment on details of the case.

"I'm in the difficult position that I'm not allowed to talk to the media," she said, without saying who was preventing her from discussing the case. "I cannot in any way comment on this matter."

Public opinion until now has been sharply divided on the controversy. Carel Brendel, editor of the opinion pages of the Algemeen Dagblad, the Rotterdam-based daily, said he had received letters from readers denouncing the matter as an "American-style" scandal that delves into people's private lives.

"They say, 'What's all the fuss about it?'" But other readers insisted that the prince give up his rights to the throne, Brendel said.

The troubling fact for many people, he said, is that Wisse Smit offered conflicting information.

Adding to the international intrigue, Wisse Smit once dated Mohammed Sacirbey, the former Bosnian foreign minister and ambassador to the United Nations who is now charged with misappropriating millions of dollars in public funds.

That fact has only served to increase perceptions that Wisse Smit moves in the wrong circles.

She and the prince were engaged in June and the wedding is scheduled for next April.

The prince is the second son of Queen Beatrix, who is very popular here despite periodic scandals and controversies. Crown Prince Willem Alexander caused a stir when he married an Argentine woman whose father was a minister for two years during the Argentine military dictatorship of Jorge Videla in the 1970's, when tens of thousands of people were killed or disappeared.

And the queen herself caused street protests in the 1960's when she married Klaus George Wilhelm Otto Friedrich von Amsberg, who had been a member of the Hitler Youth. It may be a consolation to Wisse Smit that the German prince eventually won the hearts of the Dutch people and was fondly remembered when he died last year.

Then again, Wisse Smit will never become a princess.

"She will not become a member of the royal house," said Brouwers, the government spokesman. And Prince Friso, he said, "will never get the throne."