The Netherlands’ most prominent anti-immigration politician had his day in court on Monday — and opted to skip it.
Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders was represented by a lawyer and an empty chair on the first day of his trial in Amsterdam for racial discrimination and inciting hatred. The charges carry a possible sentence of up to a year in jail, and a fine.
The case relates to a Freedom Party rally held in 2014, when Wilders asked the crowd whether they wanted "fewer or more Moroccans" in the Netherlands. When his supporters shouted that they wanted "fewer," he answered, "We will organize that." He had previously called for the closure of all mosques in the Netherlands and the banning of the Quran.
The incident at the rally resulted in 6,474 complaints — and has reignited an already heated national debate about immigration and the boundaries of free speech in politics.
Wilders released a video statement before the start of the trial, calling it politically motivated and a "travesty."
“It is my right and my duty as a politician to speak about the problems in our country — because the Netherlands has a huge problem with Moroccans” he said. “I will always keep expressing my opinion on behalf of Dutch citizens, whatever the consequences.”
Wilders is one of the most flamboyant names in Dutch politics, and his populist stance on immigration and Islam have led to his often being compared to Donald Trump.
Wilders appears to have embraced the Trump campaign as well: This year he spoke at the Republican National Convention, warning Republican delegates that open borders, "cultural relativism" and immigration were the "biggest disease in Europe today," and were to blame for the growth of Islamist terrorism.
The Netherlands is due to hold elections early next year. Wilders’ party is currently ranked second in some opinion polls.