Geert Wilders. Holland's Never-Ending Scandal
Geert Wilders, the controversial Dutch politician famously - but unsuccessfully so far - prosecuted by the Netherlands for his anti-Islamic rhetoric, never has a dull moment. Indeed, even those around him, connected to him in any way, seem to find themselves hauled into his Never-ending Controversy.
Let's consider the past few months in the wild ride that is Geert Wilders' career.
'A crisis within the criminal law division of the court.'
In October, Geert Wilders' prosecution ground to a halt. This was, mainly, because of two things. First, the Dutch Public Prosecutor's office said that Wilders should be acquitted on all charges. Second, all three judges handling Wilders' case were dismissed after Tom Schalken - one of the court of appeal judges that forced the Dutch public prosecutor to lay charges against Geert Wilders in 2009 - attended the same dinner function as one of Wilders' expert witness for the trial, and got into a discussion with that witness about "the rightfullness of his decision to put Geert Wilders on trial." Wilders' judges refused to call that witness to testify on this discussion, prompting Wilders' lawyer, Bram Moszkowicz, to challenge for their replacement.
In January, a report from the Meijerink Commission, which was commissioned to look at the organization behind Geert Wilders' criminal case, found that the challenge has, in Het Parool's words, "led to a crisis within the criminal law division of the court." The effect of the challenge has been an increase in tension within the criminal administration of Holland's court system, because it did not offer enough support for the three judges in the wake of the challenge. According to the commission: "The effect of challenging in an intensive and demanding trial such as this, and on top of that in front of the eyes of the nation, is much larger than is normally the case.”
The three judges handling Wilders' case were not adequately prepared before taking on a very politically-sensitive case. A stand-by challenge-chamber ( used for determining if new judges are necessary should a challenge arise ) was only in place during the first three days of the trial, leaving an ad-hoc chamber to be scrambled after Wilders' lawyer made his successful challenge, and placing one of its members, a direct colleague of one of the three judges being challenged, in the awkward position of being part of the challenge-chamber's decision.
As Thierry Baudet writes in a first-hand account of the Wilders' trial proceedings:
"The higher court’s decision that the lower court’s judges had appeared biased has damaged the reputation of the Dutch judiciary. There are no jury trials in Holland; and if judges were incapable of remaining fair-minded when, for the first time in history, the eyes of the world were upon them, what must they be like when no one is looking?"
In short: the Dutch judicial system didn't know what it was walking into. It wasnt' prepared, it wasn't organized, and it remains in a state of confusion over Wilders' case. From the hesitance of the public prosecutor's office to press charges, to the scandal surrounding the trial itself, to the aftermath of said scandal within the criminal administration, one has to wonder at the state of a judiciary that cannot handle such a sensitive issue with anything approaching dignity.
The success of his challenge means that Geert Wilders' trial has had to start over from scratch with new judges. In the meantime, though, Wilders' court opponents made a plea for new prosecutors to handle his case. However, this plea was shut down by a court decision in The Hague, which found that new prosecutors did not have to be appointed.
Meanwhile, the new trial process grinds along. On Monday, February 7th, a new panel of judges got the ball rolling again as they went over procedural issues. These new judges must decide how Wilders' trial will proceed: will the trial start up from scratch again, will the venue be moved from the Amsterdam District Court, or will Wilders' trial be dismissed entirely? If the trial is to start from scratch, then Wilders' wants to call Theo van Gogh's murderer, the radical Islamist Mohammed Bouyeri, as a witness.
Prosecutor Birgit van Roessel said during Monday's proceedings that she thought the trial should not be dismissed: after all, if the trial continues, the Dutch will finally have an answer on whether Wilders' remarks are criminal. In a short sentence, part of a short speech, Geert Wilders himself sums up the issue surrounding his trial quite nicely: "Future generations will look back at this trial and wonder who was right. Who defended freedom and who wanted to get rid of it."
Say what you will about the man himself. His trial represents a very crucial trend in the European drift away from its liberal traditions. This, and this alone, should be reason enough to oppose his prosecution.
Marcel van Oosten, the new presiding judge, has said that a court decision on the Wilders trial will be made at a hearing on February 14th - tomorrow, as of this writing.
The PVV: still standing
While not a formal member of the current Dutch coalition government, Geert Wilders' Freedom Party - or PVV - is nonetheless one of the parties propping up the fragile political arrangement in Holland's parliament.
This arrangement - which turned one hundred days old this January - provides advantages to both sides of this arrangement: the formal coalition partners - the liberal VVD and Christian Democrat CDA parties respectively - are theoretically able to pass legislation more smoothly in parliament, and in exchange the PVV is better able to pressure for legislative changes that it would like to see enacted.
Legislative changes like a ban on the Islamic full face veil, which Geert Wilders expects could be put into effect as soon as this year. Scary stuff for those who think that the government should not be in the business of regulating dress. However, since the VVD-CDA coalition has proven itself willing to at least consider reaching out to other parties for policy support in spite of PVV opposition, one has to question whether the PVV is really in a position to strong-arm anyone into passing legislation.
Be that as it may, for a little while there was some question as to the stability of the PVV itself, legislation or no. In November of last year, PVV MPs Eric Lucassen and James Sharpe were both embroiled in scandal due to a variety of allegations. Sharpe resigned from the PVV ( although he seemsprepared to run for office again ). Lucassen lost his spot as the party spokesman on the Neighborhood Improvement and Defence portfolios, but wasn't fired from the PVV, mainly because doing so could have triggered a parliamentary crisis.
But that isn't all. Eric Lucassen continued to be a liability for the PVV, as the Dutch Volksrant paper reported that he had been hounded for several years by debt-collection agencies - and that he was considered a "large credit risk." In November, PVV MP Jhim Bemmel was revealed to have prior convictions as well: in 2006 for forging freight documents, and in 2000 for drunk driving.
Meanwhile, PVV MP Hero Brinkman, Dutch media revealed, was arrested and fined in 2001 after driving away at high speed, headlights dimmed, from a police alcohol check - while Brinkman was still a serving police officer. In December, PVV MP Marcial Hernandez paid 500 euros to settle an assault charge - which accused Hernandez of hitting and head-butting another man in a bar in The Hague - out of court. The settlement, according to Hernandez' lawyer, was not an admission of guilt, but the public prosecution seemed pretty sure that it had all the evidence it needed to prove Hernandez guilty of assault.
Before Brinkman's record was revealed, a survey of Holland's parliamentary parties by the RTL Nieuwschannel found that of the seven members of Dutch parliament with criminal records, five were PVV MPs ( six out of eight, if you include Brinkman ).
As with Lucassen, Geert Wilders can't fire anybody from his party if he wants to maintain the Dutch coalition's majority support - firing one of his MPs would free them up to act as an independent, potentially blocking coalition legislation. But at the same time, Wilders has announced that he is done commenting on these rapid-fire stories popping up here, there, and everywhere about his motley crew of parliamentarians, saying in November, according to NIS News Bulletin: "The media's digging into the past of PVV MPs is now beginning to look like a cheap witch-hunt. I will not go along with this. I will of course tackle cases where PVV MPs have made mistakes, but the hyped-up media can just go into the deep freeze for now, as far as I am concerned. I want calm to return and will therefore no longer react to every incident."
The effect this instability has had on the public's opinion of the PVV is debatable. After Lucassen's initial controversy, the PVV lost five seats in a poll by Synovate, dropping from 30 seats to 25 in the space of two weeks. But in November, after Lucassen's continuing troubles and Brinkman's criminal past were revealed, the PVV were polling at 27 seats according to pollster Maurice de Hond. Toward the end of this January, a 'sentiment analysis' of online political comments on sites like Twitter by Buzzcapture found that the PVV's recent problems had "no great influence" on public opinion online - in fact, the analysis found that negative comments about the party had dropped from 41% to 34%. And the effect of the PVV's problems on the governing coalition, according to VVD Prime Minister Mark Rutte, were not significant enough to destabilize the status quo as of the end of November.
The rogues gallery in the PVV soldiers on
The political maneuvering doesn't stop with criminal records and background checks. Hero Brinkman caused some stirring within the PVV when he suggested that the party should become more than just the Geert Wilders party. Currently, the PVV's only official member is Geert Wilders. All other PVV MPs are, technically, listed only as 'supporters' of the PVV - and the Freedom Party is thus not an official party, although its motley crew constitutes its own voting bloc in parliament.
Geert Wilders exercises a great deal of control over the party and its functions. Brinkman thought that this should change, and in November he put forward a document calling for the PVV to open up its membership to the public and adopt more internal democracy. He wanted more leeway given to PVV MPs to have a say in what the party does, and more leeway when speaking to the press. Brinkman also criticized Geert Wilders' intention to create an international anti-Islam movement, and called for Wilders to reduce the PVV's focus on Islam, writing that, "I am convinced if we continue this trend for a couple more years it will reinforce the image that we are, indeed, simply anti-Islam."
Brinkman was, and is, right. That didn't stop the PVV from rejecting his ideas, though.
Meanwhile, in December, Job Cohen, the leader of the Dutch Labour Party - the PvdA - asked Holland's progressive opposition parties to attend a protest of the right-of-centre coalition government. "This is not how we do things in the Netherlands. Things can be done differently," he said to one newspaper.
Business as usual
The trial process grinds along, leaving confusion in its wake and threatening the reputation of Holland's judicial system. The Dutch parliament maintains its piece-meal arrangement with the PVV, but the opposition isn't thrilled to see a right-wing coalition in power. Geert Wilders remains at the centre of a storm of controversy.
Business as usual, in other words. The Wilders phenomenon continues unabated.
Walker Morrow is a Contributing Writer for The Propagandist