- Associated Press - Monday, October 4, 2010

AMSTERDAM (AP) — Dutch anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders appealed for freedom of expression Monday and then exercised his right to silence as he went on trial for purported hate speech at a time when his popularity and influence in the Netherlands are near all time highs.

Prosecutors say Mr. Wilders incited hatred against Muslims with remarks comparing Islam to Naziism and by calling for a ban on the Koran. Mr. Wilders argues he has a right to freedom of speech and that his remarks were within the bounds of the law.

“I am a suspect here because I have expressed my opinion as a representative of the people,” Mr. Wilders told judges at the start of the trial.

“Formally I’m on trial here today, but with me, the freedom of expression of many, many Dutch people is also being judged,” he said, referring to more than 1.4 million voters who made his party the country’s third-largest in June elections.

If convicted he could face up to a year in jail, though a fine would be more likely. He could keep his seat in parliament regardless of the outcome.

Shortly after defending freedom of speech in his opening statement, Mr. Wilders refused to answer any questions from the three judges.

Presiding Judge Jan Moors said Mr. Wilders is known for making bold statements but avoiding discussions, and added that “it appears you’re doing so again.”

Mr. Wilders‘ attorney, Bram Moszkowicz, said the remark gave the appearance that Judge Moors is biased and moved to have him substituted. The move delayed the trial for at least several hours as a separate panel was convened to consider the request.

Mr. Wilders told the panel that if Judge Moors is allowed to remain “then this is not only a political trial, but also an unfair trial with prejudiced judges.”

Earlier Monday, Mr. Wilders arrived at the Amsterdam District Court amid heavy security and waived to supporters as he walked into the courtroom.

Mr. Wilders‘ party has agreed to support a new conservative Dutch government likely to take office this month. In return, his political allies have promised to carry out much of his anti-immigration agenda.

The Wilders-supported government to be installed as early as this week intends new measures to reduce acceptance of asylum-seekers and cut immigration from non-Western countries in half, notably by making it difficult for foreign spouses or children to join families that have already immigrated and become Dutch citizens.

It also plans to force new immigrants to pay for their own mandatory citizenship classes.

Immigration-related issues have dominated politics in the Netherlands and much of Europe over the past decade. Mr. Wilders has drawn comparisons with populists such as the late Jorg Haider in Austria and Jean-Marie Le Pen in France.

His stances resound deeply with Dutch voters, who have reconsidered their famous tolerance amid fears their own culture is being eroded by immigrants who don’t share their values. Around six percent of the Dutch population is now Muslim.

Among Mr. Wilders‘ many remarks at issue in the trial, an editorial in newspaper De Volkskrant stands out.

“I’ve had enough of Islam in the Netherlands; let not one more Muslim immigrate,” he wrote in the paper. “I’ve had enough of the Koran in the Netherlands: Forbid that fascist book.”

The flamboyant, bleach-blond politician also has called for taxing clothing commonly worn by Muslims, such as headscarves — or “head rags,” as he called them — because they “pollute” the Dutch landscape.

He may be best known for the 2008 short film “Fitna,” which offended Muslims around the world by juxtaposing Koranic verses with images of terrorism by Islamic radicals.

In a sign of the emotions at stake in Mr. Wilders‘ political rise, Naziism is invoked on both sides. Mr. Wilders compares the growth of Islam influences in the Netherlands to the rise of Nazi ideology, while his critics say his populist, anti-foreigner rhetoric is reminiscent of Hitler’s.

A handful of anti-Wilders protesters gathered outside the court behind a banner reading “fascism rules,” with a Dutch pun on Mr. Wilders‘ name.

Mohamed Rabbae, chairman of the moderate National Moroccan Council, said outside the court that he hoped judges would force Mr. Wilders to issue an apology for his past remarks.

“We are not for getting Mr. Wilders in prison. We are for correcting him,” Mr. Rabbae said.

The case has generated huge interest in the Netherlands and the opening was broadcast live on television.

The formal charges are insulting a group on the basis of its religion and inciting discrimination and/or hatred.

Convictions for discriminatory remarks are frequent in the Netherlands, but penalties are rarely greater than a small fine.

Prosecutors were initially reluctant to bring Mr. Wilders‘ case to court, saying his remarks appeared directed toward Islam as an ideology rather than intended to insult Muslims as a group.

But they were eventually ordered to do so by a judge.

Prosecutors won’t rule out dropping some or all charges or demanding no sentence when the trial comes to its concluding phase.

A verdict is expected Nov. 4.