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Dutch populist leader Geert Wilders stayed home as his trial began in Amsterdam on charges of hate speech and incitement of violence. His Freedom Party could double its seats in the lower house of parliament in March.
On Monday, Freedom Party (PVV) leader Geert Wilders refused to show up for his trial on charges of hate speech and incitement of violence for comments he made against ethnic Moroccans in the Netherlands.
Instead, Wilders let his legal representatives repeat the views that caused the charges to be brought against him: that the country has a "mega Moroccan problem" and that too many Moroccans get welfare benefits and commit crimes. Wilders believes that he has said "nothing wrong" as he is just vocalizing the views of his constituents.
At a 2014 political event in The Hague, Wilders was filmed asking supporters if they wanted "more or fewer Moroccans" in the Netherlands. When the crowd shouted "fewer," Wilders promised he would "take care of that."
It is an anti-immigration message that has resonated with a growing number of Dutch citizens. In the Netherlands, polls indicate that the right-wing PVV could double its seats in the lower house of parliament in elections scheduled for March. In that case, the PVV would be just two seats behind Prime Minister Mark Rutte's People's Party for Freedom and Democracy.
Though he didn't speak to the court Monday, Wilders has been far from silent, continuing to spread messages on social media that judicial officials are scrutinizing for their legality. Dutch law criminalizes insulting groups because of race, religion or other characteristics, as well as inciting hatred, discrimination or violence against people for the same reasons.
The verdict is expected in December. A conviction could result in up to two years' imprisonment and a 7,400 euro ($8,100) fine.
But while judges ponder the legality of Wilders' views their popularity grows, as evidenced by Wilders' showing in the polls and the growth of populist, anti-mass-migration parties across Europe, such as the Alternative for Germany. US Republican Party nominee Donald Trump campaigned on building a wall on the US-Mexican border and a plan to block Muslims from coming to the United States.
One of Wilders' supporters is Robert Spencer, who has written several books critical of Islamic doctrine. He is director of JihadWatch.org, a website that has been described as a "hate group" by the Southern Poverty Law Center. (In turn, Spencer called the SPLC a "hard-Left smear agency for profit.")
Spencer said Wilders' comments are not out of line. "Moroccans don't have some natural right to immigrate to the Netherlands any more than anyone does to anywhere," he told DW. "And so if someone expresses an opinion saying they would like to slow the rate or stop that immigration, there is nothing ipso facto hateful about that."
Moroccans make up approximately 2 percent of the Dutch population. Asked how Wilders could consider that as excessive, Spencer said the concern centers more on the growth rate than the actual number of inhabitants at the moment.
Spencer also said since Wilders himself has shown no tendency toward violence - though the court is considering whether he's encouraging that outcome - the greater "danger to society" would be for Wilders' remarks to be deemed illegal hate speech.
Not so innocent
But European Parliament lawmaker Cecile Kyenge doesn't think remarks like Wilders' can be explained away like that. "There has been a constant stream of concerning comments from politicians across Europe," she said, "that fall short of the responsibilities they have as public figures and opinion leaders. In recent months, politicians have disseminated false information and engaged in hate speech against minorities for political gain. Actions such as these are all the more damaging when they are propagated by politicians."
Formerly Italy's minister of integration, Kyenge knows hate speech from the receiving end, after having numerous racial slurs - not to mention, bananas, literally - thrown at her, along with suggestions she go back to "her country," having been born in Congo. A fellow MEP, Mario Borghezio, was just stripped of his European Parliamentary immunity last week so he could be prosecuted for his attacks on Kyenge, which included saying she "seems like a great housekeeper but not a government minister."
Kyenge welcomed her EP colleagues' support, calling the Borghezio decision an "important signal that goes beyond my own personal situation: racism can never be an instrument of political campaigning."
Kyenge has been part of founding the European Parliament Anti-Racism and Diversity Intergroup with representatives of the EP, other EU institutions and civil society that will push to see that the anti-hate legislation is implemented in all member states, which was due by December 2014. She said next week the EP Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) will submit an oral question to the European Commission and Council, challenging them on what "action they intend to take to combat racism, xenophobia, homophobia and other forms of intolerance in political campaigns."
But outside Brussels, and regardless of the December decision in Amsterdam, the impact of Wilders' viewpoints and voice has already been deep and wide. Next door in Belgium, Hicham El Mzairh, a city councilor of Moroccan origin in Antwerp who serves as a special adviser on diversity to the Belgian Socialist Party, quips: "When it rains in Holland, the drops fall in Flanders," the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium.
And when Wilders popularizes the concept of minder Marokkanen - fewer Moroccans - in the Netherlands, El Mzairh said it empowers the right-wing Flemish-separatist Vlaams Belang party in Belgium to strengthen its own anti-migration rhetoric.
Wilders also promises that, if elected in March, one of his first orders of business - along with reducing the Moroccan minority - will be to have Flanders reunited with the Netherlands. That will put many Moroccan-born residents in Belgium in a bind, El Mzairh said, because they left the Netherlands for Belgium when viewpoints like Wilders' started gaining ground.
Though Wilders has been acquitted on hate-speech allegations before, Spencer doesn't necessarily think he'll be found not guilty again, because Spencer said the ruling elite is afraid of losing power to him. "I wouldn't be in the least surprised if he were convicted this time and if they don't convict him this time, they'll convict him next time. But eventually," he predicted, "they might have a situation where they're convicting the sitting prime minister."