AMSTERDAM, (Reuters) – Right-wing Dutch MP Geert Wilders appeared in an Amsterdam court on Wednesday charged with inciting hatred and discrimination against Muslims in a case seen as a test of free speech in the traditionally tolerant Netherlands.
Wilders, leader of the Freedom Party PVV, is standing trial after a court ordered in January he face charges in a decision that overruled the public prosecutor, who had argued Wilders was protected by the right to free speech.
The MP is charged over his 2008 film “Fitna” which accused the Koran of inciting violence as it mixed images of terrorist attacks with quotations from the Islamic holy book. He is also charged over his outspoken comments in the media, such as comparing Islam to fascism and the Koran to Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”. “I remain combative and still convinced that this political process will only lead to an acquittal,” Wilders said on his website.
Opening the proceedings, the judge addressed Wilders and said he was appearing in court as a suspect but despite the fact another court had ordered he stands trial, this did not mean he had been pre-judged.
“I appreciate you saying that,” Wilders said in reply.
A fierce opponent of Islam in European culture, Wilders has proven popular in recent years with Dutch voters concerned about immigration and its impact on Dutch society.
Wilders’ Freedom Party emerged last year as the Netherlands’ second-largest party in the European Parliament and recent polls have indicated the party stands a chance to become the largest in the Dutch Parliament in national elections due in May 2011.
“Wilders has made all of his comments in the capacity as a member of Parliament,” lawyer Bram Moszkowicz told the court, adding Wilders was only commenting on developments in society.
Outside the court, a crowd of protestors gathered behind police barriers to voice support for Wilders, carrying banners saying “Freedom Yes” and “Wilders process, a political process”.
But an anti-racism group placed 100 comments from Wilders online at www.watwilwilders.nl to back its allegations the MP is guilty of inciting immigrant hate and discrimination and that his comments are not only a criticism of religion.
Charged also with offending a group of people, the start of the case against Wilders on Wednesday aims initially to deal with procedural issues, such as how many witnesses each side will call before handling the case proper at a later date. He faces a maximum of one year and three months imprisonment if convicted on both counts.