Geert Wilders, the Dutch anti-Islam politician, has gone on trial on hate speech charges in a case that will test the boundaries of free speech in the Netherlands, in the run-up to parliamentary polls next year.
Wilders was not present in the dock when proceedings opened at 08:30 GMT at a high-security courthouse near Schiphol airport.
He has refused to cooperate in what he calls “a political trial” and, as is his right under Dutch law, is leaving his defence to his lawyers.
A three-judge bench will hear the case against Wilders, 53, on charges of insulting a racial group and inciting racial hatred after comments he made about Moroccans living in the Netherlands.
Due to run until November 25, the trial particularly focuses on a comment made at a March 2014 local government election rally, when Wilders asked supporters whether they wanted “fewer or more Moroccans in your city and in the Netherlands?”
When the crowd shouted back “Fewer! Fewer!”, Wilders answered: “We’re going to organise that.”
It is the second such trial for Wilders, who was acquitted on similar charges in 2011.
The remarks were also condemned in the Dutch parliament with parties shunning any cooperation with Wilders and his Freedom Party (PVV) despite its rising popularity, particularly among conservative Dutch voters.
Wilders and his defence lawyers have argued the case is a “political trial”. He has labelled the trial a “travesty” aimed at silencing him before elections in which the PVV is running neck-and-neck in the polls with the Liberals of Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister.
“It is my right and my duty as a politician to speak about the problems in our country,” Wilders said in a statement on Friday, adding that he would be represented in court instead by his lawyer, Geert-Jan Knoops.
Throughout preliminary hearings, Wilders has maintained that he was merely repeating his party’s political programme in the run-up to the March 15 elections – and “what millions of Dutch citizens think”.
“I have no regrets,” he said.
“If speaking about this is punishable, then the Netherlands is no longer a free democracy but a dictatorship,” he said.
Asked what he would do as the trial opens, he said that he would go to work “in the place where the political debate belongs: in our parliament”.
Judges ruled earlier this month that the trial should go ahead, saying politicians “are granted broad freedoms of expression because of their official position”.
“Precisely, therefore, politicians have an important role to avoid feeding intolerance by making these kind of public statements,” they said.
If found guilty, Wilders could face a two-year jail term or a fine of more than 20,000 euros ($22,000), but experts said such a severe punishment was unlikely, as he would be regarded as a first-offender and could face a lesser fine or community service.
Monday’s hearing started with prosecutors putting their case, followed by a number of expert witnesses, called by the court, who were expected to support Wilders’ argument.
They include Paul Cliteur, Leiden-based law professor and philosopher, who has compared Wilders’ prosecution to similar cases against French former film star Brigitte Bardot and writer Michel Houellebecq – both of whom faced hate-speech charges over comments about Islam.
“European nation states are busy prosecuting people who criticise religion and have a fear of foreigners,” Cliteur told the NRC daily last week.
“It would be good to reflect upon whether this should be really happening.”