AMSTERDAM – In a case that will test the limits of Dutch freedom of expression, firebrand lawmaker Geert Wilders appeared in court Friday for the first public hearing in a hate speech prosecution.
The pretrial hearing at a tightly guarded courtroom on the edge of Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport comes with Wilders’ anti-Islam Freedom Party standing atop opinion polls a year ahead of Dutch parliamentary elections and with anti-immigrant sentiment rising across Europe.
Prosecutor Wouter Bos said the case pits two key pillars of the Dutch constitution against one another: A ban on discrimination and the right to freedom of expression.
“The importance of freedom of speech is great,” he said. “It is one of the essential elements of our democratic society.” But, he added, “freedom of speech is not absolute.”
Wilders’ defence lawyer, Geert-Jan Knoops, said freedom of expression is “the last freedom Mr. Wilders has left.” The lawmaker has lived with around-the clock protection for more than a decade because of repeated death threats.
The case against Wilders, who was acquitted in 2011 of insulting Islam, centres on comments made before and after 2014 local elections. At one party meeting he asked supporters whether they wanted more or fewer Moroccans in the Netherlands, drawing them into the chant of “Fewer! Fewer! Fewer!”
“We’ll take care of it,” he replied.
Wilders looked relaxed as he entered the courtroom, pulling out his mobile phone to snap a picture of press photographers taking his picture before the case got underway.
A small group of supporters of the anti-immigrant Pegida group demonstrated outside the hearing in support of Wilders, one of them wearing a T-shirt and jacket emblazoned with the text “Wilders for President.” The Netherlands, a constitutional monarchy, does not have a president.
Edwin Wagensveld, leader of Pegida in the Netherlands, doubted Wilders would get a fair trial. “We are living in a democracy, and one has a right to say things openly,” he said.
Prosecutor Bos said that a first anti-Moroccan comment by Wilders during a local election campaign was a “slip of the tongue,” but the comments at the campaign meeting when Wilders reacted to the chant of “Fewer, fewer, fewer,” were carefully choreographed and planned.
Bos said that one of the first people to file a complaint about Wilders’ comments said he “felt sadness and anger at the same time. Would this mean that my child could not live in The Hague?”
Defence lawyer Knoops also demanded an investigation into how a draft copy of his opening statement was obtained by a Dutch newspaper, which published parts of it Friday. He said the case should be delayed until such an investigation is completed.
Knoops called the incident “an attack on this case, an attack on Mr. Wilders’ freedom to defend himself and freely communicate with his defence team.”
Wilders’ trial is scheduled to begin on Oct. 31.