Race hate trial of Dutch anti-Islam MP to open without him

2016-10-31 12:07
Geert Wilders (AFP, File)

Geert Wilders (AFP, File)

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Schiphol - Dutch anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders goes on trial on hate speech charges on Monday in a case that will test the boundaries of free speech in The Netherlands, ahead of parliamentary polls next year.

But the platinum-haired politician will not be in the dock when proceedings open at 08:30 GMT at a high-security courthouse near Schiphol airport. He has refused to cooperate in what he calls "a political trial" and, as is his right under Dutch law, is leaving his defence to his lawyers.

A three-judge bench will hear the case against Wilders, 53, on charges of insulting a racial group and inciting racial hatred after comments he made about Moroccans living in The Netherlands.

Due to run until November 25, the trial particularly focuses on a comment made at a March 2014 local government election rally, when Wilders 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.

'Political trial'

Wilders and his defence lawyers have argued the case is a "political trial".

The Dutch firebrand slammed it as a "travesty" aimed at silencing him ahead of elections in which the PVV is running neck-and-neck in the polls with Prime Minister Mark Rutte's Liberals.

"It is my right and my duty as a politician to speak about the problems in our country," Wilders said in a statement on Friday, adding he will be represented in court instead by his lawyer Geert-Jan Knoops.

Throughout preliminary hearings, the controversial politician has maintained he was merely repeating his party's political programme in the run-up to the March 15 elections - and "what millions of Dutch citizens think".

"I have no regrets," an unrepentant Wilders added.

"If speaking about this is punishable, then The Netherlands is no longer a free democracy but a dictatorship," he said.

Asked what he would do as the trial opens, he said he would go to work "in the place where the political debate belongs: in our parliament".

Judges ruled earlier this month that the trial should go ahead, saying politicians "are granted broad freedoms of expression because of their official position".

"Precisely therefore politicians have an important role to avoid feeding intolerance by making these kind of public statements," they said.

Trial questioned

If found guilty, Wilders could face a two-year jail term or a fine of over 20 000 euros, but experts said such a severe punishment was unlikely, as he would be regarded as a first-offender and could face a lesser fine or community service.

Monday's hearing will start with prosecutors putting their case, followed by a number of expert witnesses, called by the court, who are expected to support Wilders's argument.

They include Leiden-based law professor and philosopher Paul Cliteur, who compared Wilders's prosecution to similar cases against French former film star Brigitte Bardot and writer Michel Houellebecq - both who faced hate speech charges over comments about Islam.

"European nation states are busy prosecuting people who criticise religion and have a fear of foreigners," Cliteur told the NRC daily last week.

"It would be good to reflect upon whether this should be really happening," he said.

Another witness is Tom Zwart, a human rights professor at Utrecht University, who despite rejecting Wilders's views, believes the debate should not be held in a court of law but through the democratic process.

Read more on:    netherlands  |  racism

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