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In The Netherlands Dutch anti-Islam MP absent as hate speech trial opens

Public prosecutor Sabina van der Kallen told the judges she would not ask them to force Wilders to appear in court

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Geert Wilders has slammed the trial as a "travesty" aimed at silencing him ahead of parliamentary elections play

Geert Wilders has slammed the trial as a "travesty" aimed at silencing him ahead of parliamentary elections

(AFP/File)

The hate speech trial of Dutch anti-Islam MP Geert Wilders opened in his absence Monday, in a case that will test the boundaries of free expression ahead of parliamentary polls next year.

Wilders's lawyer Geert-Jan Knoops read out a statement from his client at the start of the hearing, explaining why he had declined to turn up.

"It is a political process and I have decided not to be present. It's my right as a politician to speak out if there is a problem in the Netherlands," the statement said.

"This is a question that should be addressed in parliament, not in a court of law."

Three judges are hearing 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.

Public prosecutor Sabina van der Kallen told the judges she would not ask them to force Wilders to appear in court.

Geert Wilders profile play

Geert Wilders profile

(AFP)

Due to run until November 25, the highly-anticipated trial focuses in part 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."

On Monday, the video of Wilders smiling at the rally was played in court with presiding judge Hendrik Steenhuis saying: "We need to determine whether Mr Wilders is guilty of insulting Moroccans and inciting hate speech against them."

Knoops told journalists before the hearing that the MP's decision was "in line with his previous statements and we as the defence respect his decision not to appear before the court."

Tight security

The trial is being held at high-security courthouse at Schiphol, just outside Amsterdam. Wilders has round-the-clock protection and has been dubbed the country's "most heavily guarded man".

A handful of supporters stood outside the courthouse Monday, one waving a banner saying: "Fewer morality knights, more patriots!"

One supporter, who asked not to named, told AFP: "It's a shame that he is being prosecuted."

Three judges are hearing the case against Wilders, 53, on charges of insulting a racial group and inciting racial hatred play

Three judges are hearing the case against Wilders, 53, on charges of insulting a racial group and inciting racial hatred

(ANP/AFP/File)

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.

'No regrets'

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

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," Wilders added.

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

Geert Wilders's Freedom Party is running neck-and-neck in the polls with Prime Minister Mark Rutte's Liberals play

Geert Wilders's Freedom Party is running neck-and-neck in the polls with Prime Minister Mark Rutte's Liberals

(ANP/AFP/File)

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

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.

A number of expert witnesses have been called by the court, some of whom are expected to support the MP's argument.

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