Schiphol, Netherlands, Oct 31 – Dutch anti-Islam MP Geert Wilders went on trial Monday in a landmark case on hate speech as a high-security court heard how children had been scared by inflammatory calls that fewer Moroccans should live in the country.
As expected, the firebrand MP with the peroxide-blonde hair snubbed the court, leaving his defence lawyer to read out a statement to explain the no-show.
“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,” Wilders’ statement said. Prosecutors confirmed they would not demand that he appear.
Analysts say the highly-anticipated trial will test the boundaries of freedom of expression as general elections loom in March.
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.
The 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.”
His 2014 statements were met with outrage including from the small but vocal Dutch Muslim community. An avalanche of 6,400 complaints followed.
The judges Monday laid out the case against Wilders including reading out complaints against him by a number of Dutch Moroccans and citizens.
“We are feeling discriminated against” and “our children are afraid,” some of the complaints read.
The children “wonder if they should go back to Morocco, especially when people shout fewer, fewer at them,” said one woman, in a statement read by Judge Elianne van Rens.
– ‘No regrets’ –
But there were other statements, highlighted by the defense, in which some plaintiffs said their relatives and the police had written the statements for them, and they did not know what they were signing.
Many statements were also taken at mosques in The Netherlands and seem to have been written along the same lines, the judges said.
In yet another twist, Wilders’ attorney, Geert-Jan Knoops, confirmed his client was counter-suing 40 Moroccan claimants — who are seeking 500 euros ($547) compensation from Wilders — for 1,150 euros each to help pay his legal fees.
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!”
It is the second such trial for Wilders who was acquitted on similar charges in 2011.
His statements in 2014 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.
But the Dutch firebrand has slammed the trial as a “travesty” aimed at silencing him ahead of the elections in which his PVV is running neck-and-neck in the polls with Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s Liberals.
And he has repeatedly vowed: “I have no regrets.”
– Avoid intolerance –
Judges ruled earlier this month the trial should go ahead, saying politicians had “broad freedoms of expression” due to their office and therefore had “an important role to avoid feeding intolerance”.
The trial is due to last until November 25, and a verdict is expected by December 9, legal officials said.
If found guilty, Wilders could face a two-year jail term or a fine of over 20,000 euros, but experts believe it is more likely that as a first-time offender he would face a lesser fine or community service.
The hearing resumes Thursday with testimony by an expert witness, expected to testify on behalf of Wilders.