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article imageFar-right Dutch MP Wilders slams 'witch-hunt' trial

By Charlotte VAN OUWERKERK (AFP)     May 16, 2018 in World

Firebrand Dutch politician Geert Wilders Thursday denounced what he called "a witch-hunt" and clashed with judges after he failed in a bid to postpone his appeal against his conviction for discrimination.

On the opening day of his appeal, Wilders sought to put back his case for further investigations, but when the judges refused, he demanded they recuse themselves.

He is appealing after being found guilty in late 2016 of discrimination against Moroccans during a 2014 election rally, when he asked supporters whether they wanted "fewer or more Moroccans in your city and in the Netherlands".

When the crowd shouted back "Fewer! Fewer!" a smiling Wilders answered: "We're going to organise that." His comments triggered some 6,400 complaints to the prosecution.

In 2016, the judges found that due to "the inflammatory nature in which the statements were made, others were encouraged to discriminate against people of Moroccan origin".

But they said there was "insufficient evidence" to find that his words amounted to incitement to hatred and acquitted him of hate speech. They also did not impose any sentence or fine.

- 'Under attack' -

Wilders's lawyer Geert-Jan Knoops called Thursday for the appeal to be postponed because prosecutors have refused to probe Democracy party D66 leader Alexander Pechtold for recent critical comments against Russians.

The car transporting Dutch far-right Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders arrives at court for the sta...
The car transporting Dutch far-right Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders arrives at court for the start of his appeal against a conviction for discrimination
Robin van Lonkhuijsen, ANP/AFP

About 40 people -- mostly Dutch with Russian roots -- complained to the prosecution service after Pechtold told the public broadcaster NOS in February: "I've still yet to meet a Russian who admits his mistakes."

Pechtold was commenting after the shock resignation of the foreign minister who admitted lying about attending a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"The comments by Mr Pechtold and Mr Wilders are legally comparable," said Knoops. "If one of them is prosecuted, the other should be as well."

The appeal judges said the bid was "refused", adding the "decision on whether to prosecute a person or not lies with the prosecution service. It is not the role of the court."

But Wilders and his lawyer then angrily demanded that they recuse themselves from the case.

"I at least expected that I would be given a fair trial. But you have completely ignored that the comments of my colleague Alexander Pechtold are comparable to what I said about Moroccans," said Wilders, jumping to his feet.

"The court is not taking its role seriously," added Knoops. "The decision by the presiding judge is so incomprehensible that it raises questions about whether there is some influence here."

"We call on the court to recuse itself in its entirety."

- Mohammed cartoon -

Despite his conviction, Wilders has remained defiant in his campaign against Islam and has defended his comments as freedom of speech.

Firebrand Dutch politician Geert Wilders has seen the fortunes of his Freedom Party (PPV) soar in bo...
Firebrand Dutch politician Geert Wilders has seen the fortunes of his Freedom Party (PPV) soar in both general and local elections in recent years
Jerry Lampen, ANP/AFP/File

Earlier Thursday he announced on Twitter that he was planning to organise a "Mohammed-cartoon contest later this year in the Dutch parliament".

He accompanied it with a cartoon of himself, watching an angry man wearing a turban in a cell.

During the court's lunch break, his Freedom Party (PVV) also ran a party political broadcast on the main broadcaster NOS which finished with the message "Islam is Deadly" as blood dripped from the letters.

A media-savvy politician, Wilders has used the court case and conviction to boost his image and popularity in the Netherlands.

In line with other recent swings to the far-right in Europe, and following the election of US maverick Republican President Donald Trump, the fortunes of the PVV have soared.

Wilders put forward a fiery platform in the country's 2017 general elections, vowing to close mosques, ban sales of the Koran and halt the immigration of Muslim refugees.

The PVV party came in second behind the Liberal VVD party of Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Wilders now heads the biggest opposition party in the Dutch lower house of parliament.

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