Wilders convicted in hate speech trial in nuanced ruling by judges

Harsh sentence might have galvanised Dutch far-right leader’s followers

Dutch far-right Party for Freedom (PVV) leader Geert Wilders releases a videotaped response after a Dutch court finds him guilty of hate speech, saying the decision "restricted freedom of speech".

 

In electoral terms, the greatest gift the judges at his “hate speech” trial could have given Dutch far-right leader Geert Wilders on Friday would have been a conviction coupled with a harshly punitive penalty, a large fine or, better still from his point of view, a jail term – all of which were open to them.

With a general election in the Netherlands in March – one of a series that could change the political complexion of Europe – Wilders is leading prime minister Mark Rutte’s Liberals in the polls, and a harsh sentence might have been enough to galvanise his supporters for a final, decisive push.

In the event, Friday’s verdict was remarkably nuanced politically – finding against the Freedom Party leader not on the main charge of incitement to hatred, but on the lesser changes of incitement to discrimination and insulting an ethnic group.

Highly unusual

More than that, this verdict – described by Wilders afterwards as “madness” – was highly unusual because it did not impose any penalty, saying instead that for a politician to be found guilty of such socially “polarising” crimes should be punishment enough.

The case, described by the judges as “extraordinary”, arose from a rally in 2014 at which Wilders asked the crowd if they wanted to see more or fewer Moroccans in the Netherlands. When they roared “fewer”, he replied: “We’ll have to organise that . . . ”

Police received more than 6,000 complaints, and the debate over whether the comments exceeded acceptable political cut-and-thrust divided the country – playing into a general mood of discontent, mainly over the economy and immigration.

Few, however, expected Wilders to face the full rigour of the law.

The first indication that he would not face a jail term, suspended or otherwise, came at the close of the trial when the public prosecutor asked the judges to impose the maximum monetary fine of €5,000 – nothing more.

Neither Wilders – who boycotted all but the final day of the three-week trial – nor his lawyer were in the courtroom to hear the judges describe his remarks as “demeaning, and therefore insulting to the Moroccan population”.

The chairman of the three-judge panel, Hendrik Steenhuis, said they believed Wilders’s words were clearly aimed at an ethnic population group – and had been incorporated into a televised speech for maximum effect.

Designed to offend

This was the judges’ answer to the question of whether Wilders had made his comments in the heat of the moment, misspeaking in an entirely uncharacteristic manner, or whether they were designed to offend. The judges chose the latter.

Moments later, the Freedom Party (PVV) leader – who was cleared of similar charges in 2011 – tweeted: “Three PVV hating judges declare that Moroccans are a race and convict me and half of the Netherlands. Madness.”

Later, announcing that he would appeal the conviction, he dismissed the court case as “a political trial” whose aim was “to neutralise the leader of the largest and most popular opposition party” just before elections.

In a comment that echoed the criticism of judges in the UK following the Brexit referendum, he added: “I am not a racist and neither are my voters. This sentence proves that you judges are completely out of touch.”

In the end though, this verdict is unlikely to change the political momentum in the Netherlands as the election campaign approaches. Instead, it will confirm both sides in their bunkers.

“Wilders’s voters will certainly not walk away from him because he’s been found guilty,” says sociologist Koen Damhuis. “On the contrary: they think he should be given a statue because of the stance he’s taken.”

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