Dutch court hears claims lawmaker has incited hatred against Muslims with anti-Islam remarks

By Toby Sterling, AP
Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Court hears Muslims’ complaints against lawmaker

AMSTERDAM — Muslims in the Netherlands say that remarks by politician Geert Wilders have poisoned attitudes toward them, making them feel unwelcome and at risk, according to complaints disclosed at his hate speech trial Wednesday.

“My family and I no longer feel safe in the Netherlands because Mr. Wilders is continually making hateful remarks about Islamic Dutch people,” said one complaint read out by the judge. “It’s getting scary. … Soon the kids won’t be able to say that they’re Muslim or half-Moroccan,” wrote the citizen, whose name was not released.

Dozens of similar complaints filed with public prosecutors eventually led them to file charges against Wilders, citing frequent statements he has made comparing Islam to Fascism, calling for a ban on Muslim immigration and for banning the Quran.

Wilders is charged with inciting discrimination and hatred and with insulting a people on religious grounds, punishable with up to a year in jail and a fine.

Wilders, who polls suggest is the Netherlands’ most popular politician, denies any wrongdoing. He says that his opinions are protected by freedom of speech and endorsed by more than a million people who voted for him in national elections last June.

He accused his judges of bias, but lost a motion this week to have them replaced. In an opening statement on Monday, he claimed his trial is political and he would remain silent in court.

The case is seen as a test of how far a politician can go in speaking negatively about a religion without unlawfully infringing on religious freedom. He has never called for violence.

The debate over immigration has dominated Dutch politics for a decade, as it has in much of Europe. Immigration controls have been continually tightened due to rising resentment over the growing Muslim presence and their difficulty in accepting Dutch values. Muslims, mostly from Morocco and Turkey, now comprise about 6 percent of the Netherlands’ 16.5 million population.

Many people feel the government has been too naive about problems caused by immigrants and too politically correct.

But others believe Wilders has crossed the line, for example when he says that “If Muslims want to stay here, they must tear out half the Quran and toss it.”

His 2007 statement of his policy goals includes: “Close the borders, no more Islamic people into the Netherlands, many Muslims out of the Netherlands, denaturalize Islamic criminals.”

Many of his ideas are being incorporated into the program of the new government set to take power as early as this week. Wilders has pledged to support the minority government in exchange for measures that would turn away more asylum seekers, halve the number of new immigrants from nonwestern countries, ban the public wearing of face-concealing Muslim garb and force immigrants to pay for their own mandatory citizenship classes.

At Wednesday’s hearing, the judges viewed Wilders’ short film “Fitna,” which juxtaposes Quranic verses with images of terrorist attacks to argue that Islam is an inherently violent religion. Its release in 2008 prompted demonstrations in the Muslim world.

He has lived under constant police protection since 2004 due to threats against his life.

Prosecutions for inciting racial hatred are rare. In 1997, right-wing lawmaker Hans Janmaat was fined and given a two-month suspended sentence for saying if he ever came to power he would “get rid of the multicultural society” — a case that shows how the boundaries of acceptable debate have changed.

Prosecutors initially declined to act on the complaints and press charges against Wilders. But an appeals court ruled there was sufficient evidence he has broken the law, and ordered prosecutors to bring a case.

It is possible prosecutors will drop some or all charges toward the end of the trial, or demand no punishment.

A verdict is expected November 4.

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