Dutch nationalist party leader Geert Wilders has attacked the judges who found him guilty of inciting discrimination on Friday and vowed to appeal the verdict.
The controversial right-wing politician dismissed the panel of judges as “Freedom Party haters” who convicted “half the Netherlands” along with him.
He previously called the proceedings a show trial and said he would not tone down his rhetoric whatever the outcome.
“People who want to stop me will have to kill me,” he said.
Wilders has lived under constant protection for twelve years.
What was the trial about?
Wilders said free speech was on trial and in a way it was.
The Dutch have struggled with the tension between freedom of speech and protection from discrimination since Pim Fortuyn, Wilders’ ideological precursor, suggested in 2002 that the anti-discrimination article should be removed from the Constitution if it barred an honest and open debate about Muslim integration.
Wilders was previously accused of inciting discrimination and hatred in 2010, after describing Muslim immigration into the Netherlands as an “invasion”, calling Islam a fascist ideology and comparing the Quran to Mein Kampf.
He was found not guilty at the time, although judges warned his rhetoric was on the edge of what is legally permissible.
This time around, Wilders was found guilty of inciting discrimination, with the presiding judge arguing there are limits on the freedom of speech. “A democratically elected politician is not above the law,” he said.
In 2014, Wilders asked supporters in televised remarks if they wanted “more or fewer Moroccans” in the city of The Hague, where local elections had been held that day. When the crowd chanted “Fewer! Fewer!” Wilders said, “I’ll take care of that.”
Some 6,400 people filed criminal complaints in the days after the speech, compelling prosectors, who were wary of starting another lawsuit against Wilders, to press charges.
Judges denied the plaintiffs damages on Friday, unconvinced that any one of them had personally suffered from Wilders’ remarks.
They also didn’t give Wilders a penalty, arguing that the trial had been punishment enough.
Undermining faith in the judiciary
In his reaction the verdict, Wilders went beyond arguing it is wrong or unfair; he called into question the independence and very legitimacy of the judiciary.
In a video that was posted on YouTube hours after the decisions, Wilders claims “nobody” trusts the courts anymore and that “truth and freedom” are stronger than — what? The law?
This is the sort of rhetoric the hard right in the United States has used for years to undermine the public’s faith in institutions.
For Wilders, it’s political. His anti-establishment voters — who, like reactionaries everywhere, feel the country has been taken away from them by big-city, left-leaning elites — have been eating it up for years. The more outrageous his rhetoric, the more he gains in the polls.
Unlike Republicans in the United States, Wilders doesn’t have a right-wing media echo chamber to amplify his message. But he nevertheless poisons the public debate in less discernible ways.
Ahead of a referendum this spring about the European Union’s association treaty with Ukraine — which Dutch voters rejected two to one — Euroskeptics, including Freedom Party supporters, alleged that municipalities had deliberately reduced the number of polling stations compared to the last parliamentary election in order to suppress the “no” vote.
The truth was that local governments expected turnout would be lower in the referendum than in parliamentary elections. And they were right: only one in three voters showed up, compared to nearly 75 percent turnout in the 2012 election.
The notion that local, part-time politicians were in cahoots with the national government and the liberal media to make life difficult for the anti-establishment cause was nevertheless promoted for weeks on populist blogs.
The parallels with Donald Trump’s lie that “millions” voted illegally in the presidential election are obvious.
Wilders took another page from Trump’s book on Friday when he argued against political correctness and called for a country “in which we can say what we think again.” Make the Netherlands great again?
“People no longer feel represented by all those politicians, judges and journalists who are out of touch with reality,” Wilders said, “and who have hurt our people for so long.”
Except by him, of course.
Trump said, “I alone can fix it,” referring to all the problems in America.
Wilders vowed, “I will keep fighting for you.”
Declaring himself the sole defender of Dutch values and free speech will probably not hurt Wilders with his base. But it’s disingenuous and another assault on the norms and institutions that keep a pluralistic society like the Netherlands’ from tearing itself apart.