Controversial Dutch MP Geert Wilders goes on trial for hate crimes today in a landmark case which will test the limits of free speech in the Netherlands.
Mr Wilders, who could face up to two years in prison if he is found guilty, warned earlier this week that “freedom of speech is on the verge of collapsing”.
He added: “If a politician is not allowed to criticise an ideology any more this means that we are lost, and it will lead to the end of our freedom. However, I remain combative: I am convinced that I will be acquitted.”
Mr Wilders is the maker of a 17-minute anti-Koran movie, Fitna, which features quotations from the Koran interspersed with footage of terrorist atrocities and speeches by Muslim preachers.
The controversial MP has also been criticised for writing anti-Islamic articles and letters which were later published in a mainstream Dutch newspaper.
However, Mr Wilders has always maintained that he is targeting Islam not individual Muslims.
Press reports indicate that Mr Wilder’s lawyer, Bram Moszkowicz, will cite a 2009 Dutch supreme court ruling that insulting a religion is not the same as insulting the followers of that religion and is therefore not punishable under hate speech laws.
Today’s hearing will establish the legal framework for the trial. The defence case will not be heard until later this year, according to reports.
Supporters of Mr Wilders gathered outside the court carrying signs calling the trial an assault on freedom of speech.
Despite the controversy Mr Wilders, the leader of the Freedom Party, is one of Holland’s most popular politicians.
The Dutch Public Prosecution Office originally declined to prosecute Mr Wilders on free speech grounds, but this decision was overturned last January by Amsterdam’s appeal court.
Last year Mr Wilders was at the heart of an international row over freedom of speech when he was denied entry to the UK.
The then Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, was accused of undermining free speech and of ‘appeasing’ religious extremists by blocking the Dutch politician’s visit.
Mr Wilders’ ban on entering the UK was overturned on appeal last October.