Defiant Dutch anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders said Friday he will refuse to attend his hate speech trial next week, dubbing it a travesty aimed at silencing him as the country prepares for 2017 elections.
The trial opens on Monday before a three-judge bench with the far-right politician facing charges of insulting a racial group and inciting racial hatred for comments he made about Moroccans living in the Netherlands.
“It is my right and my duty as a politician to speak about the problems in our country,” Wilders said in a statement Friday, dubbing the case “a political trial, in which I refuse to cooperate”.
It comes as opinion polls have shown his far-right Freedom Party (PVV) doing well ahead of March elections.
After riding high amid the migrant crisis, the party is now polling neck-and-neck with Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s Liberals each predicted to win between 25 to 29 seats in the 150-seat parliament.
Set to last until November 25, the trial focuses on a comment made at a March 2014 rally when Wilders asked supporters if 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.
- ‘Voice of millions’ -
Wilders said Friday he would leave his defence in the hands of his lawyer Geert-Jan Knoops and instead “go to work” in the parliament in The Hague.
The court confirmed in a statement that the trial would go ahead, adding like any defendant Wilders had the right not to appear.
While the court can force someone to turn up, “it is not known whether it will do so in this case,” it added.
Wilders’ 2014 statements were met with outrage including from the small, but vocal Dutch Muslim community. An avalanche of 6,400 complaints followed, and he faced condemnation from fellow MPs.
Judges earlier this month dismissed arguments by Wilders’ lawyers that the trial was “politically motivated” adding they did not believe it will impact the PVV’s election campaign.
Politicians “are granted broad freedoms of expression because of their official position,” the judges ruled last month.
“Precisely therefore politicians have an important role to avoid feeding intolerance by making these kind of public statements.”
Wilders hit back Friday saying “it is a travesty that I have to stand trial because I spoke about fewer Moroccans.”
“Millions of Dutch citizens (43 percent of the population) want fewer Moroccans,” he claimed.
“Not because they despise all Moroccans or want all Moroccans out of the country, but because they are sick and tired of the nuisance and terror caused by so many Moroccans.”
- ‘Ban the Koran’ -
Wilders drew flak when he unveiled his party’s controversial election programme saying he would confiscate Korans and close mosques if he wins the elections.
He is often described as “the most heavily guarded man” in The Netherlands and the trial is taking place in a high-security courthouse in Schiphol.
His name has “appeared on hit-lists drawn up by Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the Islamic State group”, according to his lawyer.
If found guilty, Wilders could face up to two years in jail or a fine of more than 20,000 euros ($22,000).
But as he would be a first-time offender, a lower fine or community service were more likely options, said Rolf Hoving, Dutch criminal law expert at Groningen University. A conviction will also not bar him from office under Dutch law.
“If he is acquitted ... it will surely boost his popularity, but if found guilty, it will put people off from voting for him,” said biographer Meindert Fennema.
Retired politics professor Philip van Praag agreed, but said a guilty verdict would further isolate Wilders from other political parties.
“He will always remain in the opposition. He is the eternal opposition leader. Always against the establishment,” he told AFP.