The hate-speech trial of far-right politician Geert Wilders rumbled into action Monday in the Netherlands, though the defendant himself declined to attend.
In Mr. Wilders’s absence, his lawyer read a statement made by the accused on Friday, in which he described the proceedings as a “political trial” seeking to undermine his freedom of speech. At issue are comments made by Wilders around the time of Dutch municipal elections in 2014, in which he spoke of his desire to see fewer Moroccans in the country.
It is not the first time Wilders has been on trial for such statements, and some analysts say its implications could stretch beyond the Dutch borders, feeding into the rise of the anti-establishment far-right that seems to be sweeping through much of Europe.
The trial, scheduled to last three weeks, is to focus on two incidents during a local election campaign in The Hague. The first, on March 12, 2014, involved an interview in which Wilders said that people were voting for “if possible, fewer Moroccans.” A week later, he asked the audience at a rally whether they wanted fewer or more Moroccans in the Netherlands, sparking repeated chants of “Fewer!”
Wilders's response was, “We’ll take care of it.”
A well-known critic of Islam, Wilders was acquitted on similar charges in 2011 after complaints about his rhetoric against that religion. Observers say there might be a greater chance of successful prosecution this time because the comments focused on a specific nationality.
The court where the trial is taking place said Friday, according to the Associated Press, that previous cases in European courts have defended politicians’ right to wide-ranging free speech, while simultaneously underscoring the need to “avoid public statements that feed intolerance. Where the border lies between the two will be debated in this Dutch trial.”
Wilders himself tweeted Sunday that “Islam is the real hate speech,” as well as tweeting Monday a repetition of his views on Moroccans.
According to some observers, many Dutch voters do indeed agree with Wilders’s assertions regarding alleged problems caused by Moroccan immigrants, while also disdaining what they view as political correctness that exacerbates such problems. And opinion polls would support this analysis, one on Oct. 27 suggesting that Wilders’s Freedom Party is set to double its presence in the lower house and trail the ruling VVD party by just two seats in the legislature in upcoming elections.
This voter sentiment is hardly unique to the Netherlands, and politicians in myriad nations are tapping into it, as Will Gore, deputy managing editor of the British online newspaper, the Independent, wrote in an opinion piece, citing the examples of Donald Trump in the United States, hardline “Brexiteers” in Britain, and Marine Le Pen in France. The danger of a trial such as that of Wilders, writes Mr. Gore, is that it serves only to fuel the concerns of his supporters, while seeking to prosecute a “fairly vague remark he made two years ago.”
“The best way to combat the political rhetoric of figures like Wilders is to set out a more compelling set of answers to the questions he raises than his own,” adds Gore.
If convicted, Wilders could face up to two years in jail, but prosecutors say that such cases normally result in sentences of a fine or community service. The politician already has protection around the clock – and has done so for more than 10 years – because of death threats.
This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.