Dutch court upholds hate speech case against far-right MP Geert Wilders

Defiant Dutch anti-Islam MP Geert Wilders said his trial next week on charges of inciting racial hatred was "a political trial" (AFP Photo/Remko de Waal)
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The Hague (AFP) - A Dutch court on Friday upheld hate speech charges against anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders, meaning his trial will now start later this month.

"The court rejects all the defence's objections," judge Hendrik Steenhuis told The Hague district court.

Wilders' lawyers last month urged judges at a preliminary hearing to drop the charges against the far-right leader, slamming it as a "political case" ahead of elections due in March.

But in his ruling, Steenhuis said prosecuting Wilders will "not affect his political freedoms or that of his Freedom Party."

The trial, which will now start on October 31, focuses on comments made at a March 2014 election rally in The Hague, 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!" a smiling Wilders answered: "We're going to organise that."

His lawyers argued Wilders had merely "put forward his party's political programme", and insisted he had a fundamental right to freedom of speech.

Continuing with the case to trial could have "far reaching political consequences for democracy in the Netherlands," his lawyer had argued.

Judge Steenhuis on Friday said: "Just because... Wilders or his party have not been prosecuted over the last nine years because of their viewpoints about Moroccans... doesn't mean that he won't be prosecuted for any statements about Moroccans now."

- 'No regrets' -

Wilders has remained unrepentant, insisting at his last court appearance that he only said "what millions of Dutch citizens think," and adding he had "no regrets."

He tweeted the same comment on Friday, adding the hashtag "#pleurop," a vulgar Dutch way of telling someone to "go away."

It was a deliberate echo of Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who in a recent TV interview made headlines by using the phrase to suggest Dutch citizens of Turkish and Dutch descent who failed to assimilate should return to their countries of origin.

The prosecution of the platinum-haired politician comes as his Freedom Party has been riding high in the polls ahead of the March vote.

But the PVV recently lost its lead to Rutte's liberal VVD party.

Wilders's remarks triggered 6,400 complaints, and criticism from within his own party.

Some 56 people and five organisations have registered as victims of the comments and at least 34 witnesses have come forward, judges have said.

Although judges on Friday allowed 40 claims to go ahead, they capped the amount sought as damages at 500 euros, dismissing the 21 other claims.

Wilders is described as the "most heavily-guarded man" in the Netherlands.

And since the 2004 assassination of anti-Islam film director Theo van Gogh, he has had around-the-clock protection.

But he has drawn heavy flack recently from fellow MPs after saying he would close all mosques and confiscate Korans -- which he famously compares to Hitler's "Mein Kampf" -- should he win the elections.

If found guilty, Wilders could face up to two years in jail or a fine of more than 20,000 euros ($22,000).

In an earlier 2011 hate trial Wilders was acquitted when judges ruled his remarks targeted a religion and not a specific group of people.

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