Guest Post by Geraldine Coughlan
The collapse of the high-profile trial of the Dutch right-wing MP Geert Wilders, on charges of inciting hatred and discrimination against Muslims, has caused uproar in the Netherlands. A special panel of judges at the Amsterdam Court of Appeal decided to replace the trial judges after Mr. Wilders accused them of bias because they refused to recall a defence witness who wrote on a weblog that one of the judges had improperly contacted him. The oversight panel said that Geert Wilders’ fears were understandable, as the bench had created an “impression of partiality”. The ruling means that new judges will be appointed and the trial will have to start again. Critics say the decision casts doubt on the integrity of the judiciary, while others claim it reflects the rights and powers of the defendent.
The Wilders trial, which is the first to be broadcast live in the Netherlands, has brought the issue of limits to the freedom of speech, to the forefront of public debate. While Geert Wilders says he has no more confidence in the judges and that the trial was a “circus”, the President of the High Court, Geert Cortstens, warns that politicians should not make comments that undermine the confidence of citizens in the legal system. However, the Netherlands Association for the Judiciary says that it welcomes the scrutiny of live media coverage of the trial, as it provides for public understanding and evaluation of proceedings in this “very important” case.
While both the prosecution (which was ordered by the Appeals Court to bring the case) and the defence have called for Wilders’ acquittal, one thing is clear to those at home, watching this unique trial, is that its outcome is difficult to predict. There is no clear precedent in Dutch law for incitement to hatred and discrimination, with the one prominent case involving the far-right politician Hans Janmaat, who was convicted of discrimination in the 1990′s. Geert Wilders cannot look to international law for solace, either. While in the past, the trend was to grant politicians plenty of room for expression, the European Court of Human Rights recently upheld restrictions on politicians’ freedom of speech in the cases involving incitement to hatred against Jean-Marie Le Pen in France, Daniel Feret in Belgium and Mark Norwood in the UK.
Amsterdam Court of Appeal: