NETHERLANDS: The highly-anticipated trial of Dutch anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders opens at a top security court Monday with the controversial MP facing hate speech charges as the country gears up for next year’s parliamentary elections.
Wilders, 53, is to appear before a three-judge bench on charges of insulting a racial group and inciting racial hatred after comments he made about Moroccans living in The Netherlands.
All eyes will be on the fortress-like court building near Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport to see how the trial impacts Wilders’ fortunes in the run-up to the March 15 polls.
Set to last until November 25, the trial focuses on a comment made at a March 2014 local government election rally, when the platinum-haired politician asked supporters whether they wanted “fewer or more Moroccans in your city and in the Netherlands?”
When the crowd shouted back “Fewer! Fewer!” a smiling Wilders answered: “We’re going to organise that.”
It is the second such trial for Wilders who was acquitted on similar charges in 2011.
His 2014 statements were met with outrage including from the small, but vocal Dutch Muslim community. An avalanche of 6,400 complaints followed.
They were also condemned in the Dutch parliament with parties shunning any cooperation with Wilders and his Freedom Party (PVV) despite its rising popularity, particularly among conservative Dutch voters.
Judges earlier this month dismissed arguments by Wilders’ lawyers that the trial was “politically motivated” and added they did not believe it will impact the PVV’s election campaign.
Defence lawyer Geert-Jan Knoops had said Wilders was merely putting forward the PVV’s political programme, which he had the right to do under freedom of speech.
But Knoops’ argument was squarely rejected as the judges sent the case to trial.
Politicians “are granted broad freedoms of expression because of their official position,” the judges ruled after preliminary hearings in September.
“Precisely therefore politicians have an important role to avoid feeding intolerance by making these kind of public statements.”
Wilders however refuses to retract his comments and has repeatedly said he was “merely saying what millions of others think” in The Netherlands.
“I have no regrets,” he added defiantly.
In an early victory, Dutch prosecutors on Wednesday declined to pursue 40 claims for compensation by Moroccans against Wilders.
‘Ban the Koran’
Wilders drew flak recently from fellow MPs when he said he would close all mosques and confiscate Korans — which he famously compares to Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” — should he win the elections.
He is often described as “the most heavily guarded man” in The Netherlands and the choice of Schiphol’s high-security courthouse is for his own protection.
His lawyer told judges his client’s name “appeared on hit-lists drawn up by Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the Islamic State group”.
His supporters however are undeterred.
Late last year, his party was topping opinion polls as the migrant crisis polarised the country. But in recent months, it has dropped back into second place, behind Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s Liberal VVD party.
If found guilty, Wilders could face up to two years in jail or a fine of more than 20,000 euros ($22,000).
But as he would be a first-time offender, a lower fine or community service were more likely options, said Rolf Hoving, Dutch criminal law expert at Groningen University.
A conviction would “not have consequences” for Wilders in terms of pursuing his political career,” Hoving told AFP, pointing out the Dutch constitution allows anybody to become an MP, even if convicted by a court.
In 2011, Wilders was acquitted when judges ruled his remarks targeted a religion and not a specific group of people.
“If he is acquitted, like the previous time, it will surely boost his popularity, but if found guilty, it will put people off from voting for him,” said Meindert Fennema, who authored Wilders’ biography.
Retired politics professor Philip van Praag agrees, but said a guilty verdict would further isolate Wilders from other political parties.
“He will always remain in the opposition. He is the eternal opposition leader. Always against the establishment,” said Van Praag told AFP.