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Twists And Turns In Wilders Speech Trial

geert wilders holland politician islam freedom speech expression human rights democracyIn Holland, things have to get worse before they can get better. At least, such is the case with Geert Wilders, the Dutch politician being brought up on charges of group insult and inciting hatred and discrimination because of his skeptical, even hostile, view of Islam.

There are obvious reasons why a politician being prosecuted for his words and opinions on religion should be a disturbing sight in a country with a liberal background like Holland. That's particularly so in this case, where the odds seem rather stacked against the defendant.

For instance, the outgoing Justice Minister for Holland, Hirsch Ballin, seems to have had some personal involvement in Geert Wilders' prosecution. Not only that, but Hirsch is a member of the Christian Democrat CDA party, which recently joined with the liberal VVD party in a coalition backed by Geert Wilders' Freedom Party (PVV). This coalition was opposed by Ballin, who is a vocal critic of Wilders.

Need another example? During a screening of Geert Wilders' Islam-skeptic film, Fitna, as part of the court proceedings in his case, one of judges presiding made what could be seen as a biased remark. During the proceedings, one of the complainants present said that she did not want to see Fitna, to which Justice Jan Moors said: “I can understand that.” This prompted a rebuke from Wilders' lawyer which Moors brushed aside by saying that he was not passing judgment on the film with his comment. Despite his assurances, one can see how his words could easily be construed as criticism.

Another example? Alright. Frans Bauduin, the president of the court of substitution which ruled that certain statements by one of the judges handling the Wilders case were not prejudiced against Wilders, also happens to have a stake in the outcome of Wilders' trial. Bauduin serves as a board member for a group called the Morocco Fund, which works to stimulate Moroccan development aid. The Morocco Fund exists thanks to government funding, which might well come into question should Geert Wilders' Islam-skeptic PVV continue to exert influence in the Dutch parliament.

In other words, we're seeing what could be perceived as conflicts of interest down the line.

Geert Wilders' first real trial date was October 4th. But since its first day, the case against Wilders has not taken long to fall apart.

First, the Dutch Public Prosecutor said that Geert Wilders must be acquitted of the charge of group insult because his statements were related to the Koran and to the religion of Islam, and not to Muslims themselves. When it comes to Geert Wilders' comparison of the Koran to Hitler's Mein Kampf, the prosecutors – Paul Venneman and Birgit van Roessel - found such a comparison to be “crude,” but not worthy of punishment.

Indeed, as reported by ""Criticism can only be punishable if it is unmistakably aimed at people and not only their convictions," prosecutor Birgit van Roessel told the Amsterdam district court."

The Public Prosecutor also said that the plaintiffs in the case against Wilders should not receive compensation should they win the case, since it hadn't been proven that any of the plaintiffs had been harmed directly by Wilders' statements.

Then, a few days later, the Public Prosecutor was back to say that Geert Wilders should be acquitted of incitement to hatred. This was for much the same reason that they felt he should be acquitted of group insult: his comments, when taken in context, were about Islam generally and not about Muslims specifically.

Later that same day the Public Prosecutor went even further, saying that Wilders should be acquitted on all counts. The prosecutors carefully reviewed Fitna and looked through Geert Wilders' interviews and articles – and found nothing they could prosecute.

Regarding Geert Wilders' rather infamous comments that the Koran should be banned, they found that although such comments could be discriminatory, Geert Wilders is discussing democratic means of going about such a ban. He isn't inciting discrimination according to legal definitions.

As Theo de Roos, a professor of Criminal Law and Criminal Procedure at Holland's Tilburg University who was passed up as a witness by the judges handing Wilders' case notes: “What I have a big problem with is that the ruling of the Court does not judge the one-liners of Wilders in their context. If you do, you can see he has a consistent story about protecting Dutch culture against Islam. You may find that evil or ridiculous, but it is a contribution to the public debate.“

Well, the Public Prosecutor did look at Wilders' comments in their context. And they could find nothing to charge him with.

The Public Prosecutor didn't want charges to be pressed against Geert Wilders in the first place - they dismissed multiple complaints against him back in June of 2008. It was only after a Dutch appeals court ruled that Wilders should stand trial that the prosecutor started to put together a case. Once again, to its credit, it seems that the office of the Public Prosecutor wants off the boat.

The process continued. Muslim organizations were hoping that the court would still find against Wilders despite the Public Prosecutor's recommendations – a verdict was expected in early November. A guilty verdict was certainly possible, as even though the court will usually follow the Public Prosecutor's advice in such matters, it can over-rule the Prosecutor's recommendations if it so chooses. Geert Wilders wasn't out of the woods yet. If the court decided that it didn't like the look of him – and as pointed out above, it certainly didn't seem to – it could still find against him.

Then things took even more of a turn. On Friday Oct. 22nd, the final day of the court proceedings, Geert Wilders' lawyer asked for the three judges handling the case to be dismissed due to bias – and his request was approved by the court's dismissal commission.

This means that things will have to start over from scratch. As Mercedes Grootscholten, a spokeswoman for the Amsterdam district court, told CNN: “"We now have to start the trial all over again. We don't know how long it will take but we have to plan for a whole new trial and find new judges which could take several months.”

The reason for the dismissal is that one of the judges, Tom Schalken, attended the same dinner function as one of Wilders' expert witnesses for the trial, Hans Jensen. During this dinner, as Jensen laid out in a blog post after the fact, Schalken “tried to convince me of the rightfulness of his decision to put Geert Wilders on trial.”

After this blog post came to light, exposing as it did a very real potential for conflict of interest, the court handling Wilders' case refused to call Hans Jensen as a witness, thus prompting Wilders' lawyer to call for the replacement of the three judges presiding.

Now, it should be mentioned that some Muslims feel that Geert Wilders has marginalized them in Dutch society. For instance, as reported by Bloomberg Businessweek: “Mohammed Enait says that, as a result of Wilders' criticisms of Islam, Muslim children are insulted on the street, women are spat upon for wearing headscarves and attacks on mosques have become commonplace.”

This is something that shouldn't be ignored. Although one might have a hard time attributing such things directly to Geert Wilders - indeed, the Dutch Public Prosecutor certainly did – these feelings of alienation can only further contribute to the lack of integration for Islamic immigrants in Holland.

At any rate, the Geert Wilders trial will continue to grind along, albeit with new judges. Maybe this new panel of judges will take the Public Prosecutors' advice, and a day will come when Holland will not be putting one of its politicians on trial for his words. One can only hope.

Walker Morrow is a Contributing Writer for The Propagandist.


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