Around 200 supporters of Dutch anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders demonstrated outside an Amsterdam court Wednesday at the start of his criminal trial for allegedly inciting hate against the Netherlands’ Muslim minority.
The case is seen as an important test weighing Wilders’ right to freedom of speech against Dutch immigrants’ rights to freedom of religion and freedom from persecution.
“This case is about more than Mr. Wilders,” defense lawyer Bram Moszkowicz told Amsterdam District Court. “It touches us all. It is such an important and principled question that could have far-reaching consequences.”
Wilders has been charged for more than 100 public statements, including remarks comparing the Quran to Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” and calling for it to be banned in the Netherlands.
He also produced the 2008 short film “Fitna,” which offended Muslims around the world by juxtaposing Quran verses with images of terrorism by Islamic radicals.
Moszkowicz challenged the court’s jurisdiction Wednesday and argued the charges should be dismissed. Prosecutors are expected to put forward lists of prospective witnesses. Formal opening arguments won’t be until March.
Supporters outside the court carried signs calling Wilders’ prosecution an assault on freedom of speech.
Liesbeth Bouts, 66, traveled from the southern city of Eindhoven to show her support for Wilders. She said the trial was brought on by the “political correctness police.”
“He says what many people in this country think: we are against the Islam-izing of the Netherlands,” she said.
She said it was “ridiculous” to prosecute a politician for fairly representing his electorate.
“He has never called for violence,” she said.
Immigrant, Muslim and anti-racism groups have long sought Wilders’ prosecution, saying his remarks go beyond being offensive and compound ethnic tensions in the Netherlands, a country once regarded as a beacon of tolerance.
“Wilders’ own remarks show that he’s not interested in religious criticism but in xenophobia and discrimination,” said the group Nederland Bekent Kleur – Dutch for “The Netherlands Shows Its Colors” – in a statement.
Muslims make up about 6 percent of the Dutch population of 16 million, and immigration-related issues have dominated Dutch politics since the turn of the century.
Wilders’ opposition Party for Freedom has grown quickly and now rivals the country’s biggest in popularity polls.
If convicted, Wilders could face a maximum sentence of two years in prison, though a fine of up to $26,800 is more likely. He could keep his seat in parliament.