The anti-Islam Dutch politician Geert Wilders appeared in court in Amsterdam on Monday on charges of inciting hatred towards Muslims, Moroccans and other non-Western groups in the Netherlands.
Wilders, one of the most powerful men in the Dutch parliament, told a panel of judges that he thinks he's the victim of political persecution, saying they must drop the charges against him in order to protect free speech.
"Citizens who criticize Islam pay a bitter price. They are threatened, persecuted and criminalized," Wilders told judges at a hearing that was meant to decide how the case would continue.
Wilders has repeatedly referred to Islam as a "fascist" faith, has likened the Koran to Hitler's "Mein Kampf" and is under 24-hour protection following death threats. The specific charges against the parliamentarian stem from comments made in his campaign "stop the Islamization of the Netherlands." Wilders could face a 7,600 euro ($10,300) fine or up to a year in jail if found guilty.
His populist group, called the Freedom Party, is the third largest in parliament in the Hague, and is a crucial unofficial ally for the minority coalition government of Christian Democrats and Liberals.
Unclear how trial will proceed
Monday's hearing was a procedural one, deciding how Wilders' trial should progress. The initial trial was interrupted last October, after a judicial review ruled that the judges were not impartial.
Lawyers from both sides put their cases to the new judges, with Wilders' lawyer calling for the trial to be moved to the Hague, so it could be better coordinated with the politician's work in parliament.
Defense lawyer Bram Moszkowicz also wants the trial to restart from scratch and is lobbying for permission to call more Islamic experts as witnesses, some of whom were not allowed to testify last time around.
Moszkowicz told the judges that Wilders has never written or said anything disparaging about Muslims. Rather, the lawyer argued, his client had only ever criticized Islam and its holy text, the Koran, something which is not illegal under Dutch law.
Prosecutors, meanwhile, want the case to pick up where it left off, although they had admitted their case against the politician was weak in the last round of proceedings. They had submitted that while Wilders' comments were certainly hurtful towards Muslims and other immigrant communities, especially Moroccans, they were not a criminal offence under Dutch law.
The judges are due to decide on how the case should proceed next week.
Wilders himself, who has garnered considerable public support with his controversial statements, used the court hearing - which was broadcast live on television throughout the Netherlands - as another chance for political grandstanding.
"The lights are going out all over Europe, and it's because of Islam," Wilders told the packed courtroom. "There are no Islamic Mozarts or Bill Gates because they can't exist where there is no creative freedom. An ideology that comes from the desert can only create a desert."
Author: Lauren Comiteau, Mark Hallam (AFP, dpa, Reuters)
Editor: Rob Turner