Thursday, January 21, 2010

Dutch anti-Islam lawmaker faces hate speech trial

Dutch anti-Islam lawmaker faces hate speech trial

Dutch anti-Islam lawmaker faces hate speech trial

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," Wilders 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 Quranic verses with images of terrorism by Islamic radicals.

Moszkowicz challenged the court's jurisdiction Wednesday and argued the charges should be dismissed. Later at the hearing prosecutors are expected to put forward lists of prospective witnesses. Formal opening arguments won't be heard 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. They are trying to shut him up."

"He says what many people in this country think: we are against the Islam-izing of the Netherlands," she said, draped in a Dutch flag.

She said it was "ridiculous" to prosecute a politician for fairly representing his electorate.

"He has never called for violence," she said.

Presiding Judge Jan Moors assured Wilders he would receive a fair trial.

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 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 six percent of the Dutch population of 15 million, after a wave of immigration in the 1980s and 1990s, and immigration-related issues have dominated Dutch politics since the turn of the century.

Wilders' opposition Freedom Party has grown quickly and now rivals the country's biggest in popularity polls.

If convicted, Wilders would face a maximum sentence of two years in prison, though a fine of up to euro18,500 ($26,800) is more likely. He could theoretically keep his seat in parliament.

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