Anti-Muslim Dutch Lawmaker's Trial Tests Freedom of Speech

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Toussaint Kluiters / United Photos / Reuters

Right-wing Dutch MP Geert Wilders, in an Amsterdam court, charged with inciting hatred and discrimination against Muslims.

A flamboyant populist and founder of a virulently anti-immigrant political party, Geert Wilders sees himself as a champion of free speech in the Netherlands. Others would disagree. Wilders, a member of the Dutch parliament, is in court this week to face five counts of inciting hatred and discrimination for describing Islam as a fascist religion and Moroccan youths as violent and for calling for the banning of the Koran. The trial, which resumed Wednesday, Feb. 3, after a two-week break, is seen as a test of the limits of free speech and the famously tolerant country's commitment to protecting minority rights.

Wilders, a 46-year-old with bleached-blond, bouffant hair, made international headlines in 2008 when he made a short film called Fitna, in which verses from the Koran were displayed against a background of violent film clips and images of Islamic radicals' terrorism. Described as "offensively anti-Islamic" by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the film led to protests in the Muslim world and prompted Britain to ban Wilders from entering the country. But it also brought Wilders more popularity at home. His Party for Freedom finished second in last year's European Parliament elections, winning 17% of the Dutch vote. His party also holds nine seats in the Dutch parliament.

Because of his extreme anti-Muslim views, Wilders is often compared to the leaders of Europe's other far-right parties, such as Nick Griffin of the British National Party and Jean-Marie Le Pen of France's National Front. But he claims (though his opponents strongly disagree) that his policies are rooted in the Dutch tradition of tolerance: he says that Islam is a threat to women's rights, and he criticizes Muslims' anti-gay rhetoric. Now under 24-hour surveillance because of the many death threats he's received, Wilders told TIME last year that Islam itself stirs hatred. "The Koran is full of incitements to violence," he said. "Islam wants to dominate every part of life and society. It does not want to integrate or assimilate, but to dominate. It should not be compared to other religions but with totalitarian ideologies like communism or fascism."

Muslims hardly dominate Dutch society. According to official figures, Muslims account for only about 5% of the country's 16.5 million people, and immigration has trickled to a near halt in recent years. But even if Wilders offers an extreme and distorted view of Muslims, it is a view that has increasing resonance with voters, says Ian Buruma, author of a book about the 2004 murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Muslim radical, Mohammed Bouyeri. "There is real anxiety over immigration and the Muslim issue, globalization and economic uncertainty. That climate of insecurity and resentment makes voters vulnerable to the kind of populist demagoguery that Wilders is very good at."

If prosecutors thought Wilders would wilt in the courtroom, they underestimated his sense of theater. The politician is using the case against him to put Islam on trial, vociferously defending his right to free speech. He suffered a setback on Wednesday, however, when the Amsterdam District Court rejected his demand that the Supreme Court hear the case because he's a member of parliament and then denied his request for 18 witnesses to testify on his behalf — including Bouyeri, who is serving a life sentence for van Gogh's murder. (After he killed the filmmaker, Bouyeri used a knife to stick a note to the body, threatening Wilders and other politicians for criticizing Islam.) Wilders said in making his request that Bouyeri is "living proof" that Islam inspires violence.

Another proposed witness rejected by the court was Ayatullah Ahmad Jannati, a hard-line Iranian politician who chairs the Guardians Council, which oversees legislation in the country and approves candidates for elections. "The court is denying me a fair trial," Wilders said afterward, adding that he was "angry, disappointed, but ready to fight."

If Wilders is convicted, he faces up to 16 months in prison. But he appears to be relishing the proceedings thus far, likely hoping the trial will give his party a boost ahead of next year's national elections. Speaking to the court last month, Wilders even quoted Thomas Jefferson, saying that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. "I believe in my heart and soul that freedom in the Netherlands is being threatened," he said. "It is not only our right but our obligation as free people to speak out."