Geert Wilders on trial

In 2011, Dutch right-wing politician Geert Wilders was cleared of charges of group defamation, incitement to hatred and discrimination against Muslims. Rutger Kaput looks at the case.

The case

In October 2010, Dutch MP Geert Wilders was brought to justice on charges of group defamation, incitement to hatred and discrimination against Muslims. Wilders is an outspoken critic of Islam and leader of the Freedom Party, which won 24 out of 150 seats in parliament in the June 2010 elections. Initially, prosecutors found insufficient grounds to prosecute Wilders. An Amsterdam court judged otherwise, after various individuals had succesfully demanded a legal reconsideration of Wilders’ statements. This right  is granted under Dutch law to those directly affected by potential offences which have not been pursued. The court argued that it was in the “public interest” to put Wilders on trial for his “insulting” comparison of the Qu’ran with nazism as well as for various other potentially illegitimate  statements.

After a tumultuous trial, Wilders was cleared of all charges in June 2011. As the official English trancript of the verdict states, the judge ruled that, though sometimes “hurtful and humiliating”, Wilders’ statements had remained within the boundaries of the law. Moreover, Wilders had consistently directed his criticism at Islam as a body of beliefs rather than at Muslims as a group of believers.

Author opinion

Politicians have a special role in voicing the concerns of those groups in society which would otherwise potentially not be heard. This role warrants extensive rights to express these concerns publicly but also generates a responsibility for politicians to use it wisely, precisely given their position. This raises a question about the legal responsibility of politicians. Under the rule of law, no one (politicians included) is exempt from obeying the law. This would entail that it should be possible to try politicians. However, in practice, trying politicians over their public opinions may lead to (self-) censorship or stifle important political debate. Moreover, it risks politicising law and “legalising” politics. Therefore in most cases - barring clear instances of public unrest - it is desirable both legally and politically to judge political expression within the political arena and not within the courtroom.

- Rutger Kaput

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford.

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