The trial of Geert Wilders is nearly over. On Thursday, the three Amsterdam district court judges conducting the trial will announce their verdict. It is widely expected that Mr Wilders will be acquitted on all the charges facing him.
1. Intentionally offending Muslims
2. Inciting hatred against Muslims
3. Inciting discrimination against Muslims
4. Inciting hatred of non-western immigrants
A sample of Mr Wilders' statements listed in the charge sheet:
"Prohibit this miserable book [the Qur'an] the way [Hitler's] Mein Kampf was also prohibited!"
"We must stop the tsunami of Islamisation"
"Islam is a violent religion"
A Qur'an deprived of all vindictive verses "would be the size of a Donald Duck comic- book"
Geert Wilders' first day in court:
20 January 2010
Trial to be completed by summer of 2011
If that is the case, the 29-month legal struggle which saw one of the country’s most popular and influential politicians accused of hate-mongering will come to an end.
It started back in January 2009 when justices of the Amsterdam court ordered the public prosecutor to bring charges against Mr Wilders of inciting hatred and discrimination, based on a number of his anti-Islamic statements published in the national media, as well as Mr Wilders’ film, Fitna.
The trial was supposed to be about
One moment during the dozens of courtroom sessions encapsulated what, for many, the trial was supposed to be about. Twenty-four-year-old law student Naoual Abaida, daughter of a Moroccan immigrant, stood in the courtroom not two metres from Mr Wilders. She was allowed to speak as one of the ‘injured parties’; one of the people who had initially petitioned the Justice Ministry to prosecute him.
Looking into his eyes she said his “insulting, polarising and provocative language has set the tone for a country becoming increasingly intolerant.”
The trial was really about
But for Mr Wilders and his high-profile defence lawyer, Bram Moszkowicz, the trial has been about free speech. To them, Mr Wilders is being persecuted for expressing his opinion. They have persuaded much of the Dutch public that this is what the trial is really about.
The courtroom trial got underway in January 2010. Cameras were allowed to film without restrictions during court sessions, a first in the Netherlands. The country has since followed the trial closely.
Islam on trial
The initial defence strategy was to put Islam on trial. Mr Moszkowicz asked the court to hear 18 witnesses, including various academics known for being highly critical of Islam, but also Mohammed Bouyeri, the convicted murderer of Theo van Gogh. The defence wanted to prove that the statements Mr Wilders had made about Islam were true, and therefore could not be considered as incitement.
The court allowed just three of those witnesses to testify in closed hearings.
Judicial system damaged
In the end, it was not Islam but the Dutch judicial system that came under the spotlight during the course of the trial. Three developments in particular have damaged the credibility of the judicial establishment.
First, the ruling of the Amsterdam court to prosecute Wilders was controversial in and of itself. The court made the ruling only after a special team at the national public prosecutor’s office had repeatedly decided not to prosecute Mr Wilders. This exposed an internal struggle between the district court and the justice ministry.
In that struggle, Amsterdam won the first round by forcing the trial to take place. But the justice ministry pushed back. They assigned two members of that same special team to conduct the prosecution at the trial in Amsterdam. Thus, Geert Wilders’ prosecutors were already on record as opposing his prosecution. And, indeed, during the trial they used the same argument, calling for Mr Wilders to be acquitted.
Attempt to silence Wilders
The second development was brought on by Mr Wilders’ defence. He and his lawyer have claimed that this trial is a politically motivated attempt to silence him. A strong accusation. But this claim became more plausible when the initial three judges hearing the trial were ruled to have demonstrated possible bias against Mr Wilders.
The trial had to resume with three new judges, but not before the Amsterdam district court went through an intensive process of self-reflection and public criticism.
That leaves the third development, one which again put the judicial system in a bad light: ‘the dinner’. For a few months, the trial focused on a social gathering involving the judge who wrote the decision to prosecute Mr Wilders and one of the three expert witnesses called by the defence. Allegations of witness tampering were shown to be unfounded, but the judge, and by extension the entire Amsterdam district court, came out looking naïve and amateurish.
Wilders the freedom fighter
The defence has succeeded in framing the trial for the Dutch public. Mr Wilders has four times used the opportunity to speak directly to the judges from the dock and, given the extensive coverage, to the entire nation. He has cast himself as one in a long line of freedom fighters, from Thomas Jefferson to the Dutch resistance during World War II.
He also got the last word during the final day of hearings on 5 June:
“Don’t let the light be extinguished in the Netherlands. Set me free. Political freedom requires that citizens are able to express current opinions within society.”