Sunday, October 3, 2010
In power and on trial. A unique situation in recent Dutch political history. What consequences will his trial have on public debate? Will Geert Wilders tone down his rhetoric?
Wilders feels he is on a mission. His closest advisor and party colleague, Martin Bosma, has even called it a crusade. Wilders himself put it this way at the end of the first day of his trial in January, "It is not only the right, but the duty of every free person to speak out against every ideology that imperils freedom."
The move from the opposition benches to a supporting role in government will not change this sense of purpose. During the presentation of the new governing agreement, he said "We live in historic times, and we've come to a historic agreement... this accord will have far-reaching effects on the Netherlands."
Presenting the agreement and in a speech he gave in New York on September 11, Wilders failed to reiterate some of his more controversial remarks about Islam. Some observers say a milder Geert Wilders may be emerging as he gets closer to power.
But that is unlikely to last, in part because of the trial.
Wilders says the case against him is politically motivated, that it is an attempt to silence him. While he admits to being concerned about the prospects of going to jail (he faces a maximum sentence of two years in prison), he is characteristically defiant. And he passionately defends his right to say what he wants. Hence, toning down his message would damage his very credibility.
Wilders is facing three charges: incitement to hatred, discrimination against Muslims, and insulting Moroccan immigrants. The charges are based on statements he made in public, articles he wrote and the film he produced: Fitna.
Wilders has described Islam as "evil", a "violent religion" and an "intolerant and fascist ideology". He has called for an outright ban on the Islamic holy book, the Qur'an, calling it the "Islamic Mein Kampf". He called the prophet Muhammad a "sick paedophile" who behaved "like a pig", and he called for a "headrag tax" on women who wear a Muslim headscarf.
He referred to Muslims in the Netherlands "colonisers", who they are attempting to "transform the Netherlands into a province of the Islamic superstate, Eurabia."
Wilders may be controversial, but so is the fact that charges have been brought against him. The public prosecutor's office in Amsterdam only filed against Wilders after a judge so ordered. Before that, the public prosecutor had repeatedly refused to bring charges, on the grounds that, as a public figure, Wilders should be allowed a great deal of leeway in expressing his views. His views make up part of the public debate.
The decision not to charge Wilders was criticised by some, and the judge's order to bring charges has been criticised by others. The trial itself splits Dutch society down the middle. Which is more important - freedom of speech or freedom of religion?
Wilders and his lawyer, Bram Moszkowicz, make two arguments: Wilders has not broken the law and, even if he had, the law is contrary to international norms of free speech.
A number of legal experts agree. Geert Jan Knoops is professor of international criminal law at the University of Utrecht. He says "You have to oppose Wilders in a public debate, not silence him in a courtroom. Whatever you think about his ideas."
No clear precedent
The outcome of the trial is difficult to predict. The precedent in Dutch law for incitement to hatred and discrimination are not clear. The one prominent case involved the far-right politician Hans Janmaat. In the 1990s he was convicted three times, in three different jurisdictions, for discrimination. But his most famous statement, that this country couldn't handle any more immigrants because "full is full", seemed relatively mild just a few years later.
Wilders cannot look to international law for solace, either. While, in the past, the trend was to grant politicians plenty of room for expression, the European Court of Human Rights recently upheld restrictions on politicians' freedom of speech in cases involving incitement to hatred. (Jean-Marie Le Pen in France, Daniel Feret in Belgium and Mark Norwood in the UK.)
The trial is set to continue all month, with a verdict currently scheduled for 4 November. In the meantime, Geert Wilders will see many of his ideas implemented, as the government he has made possible takes office. Continuing in his previous strident tone could well upset his new political friends and the trial may make Wilders think again, temporarily - but in the long run it is hard to see him changing the style that brought him success.
The debate in the Netherlands looks likely to remain as heated as ever in the coming months and years.