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Dutch Far-Right Politician Leads In Polls Despite Legal Charges


In the Netherlands one of the country's most popular politicians is being tried for hate speech against immigrants. His name is Geert Wilders. And he's campaigned ahead of parliamentary elections on a platform that is anti-immigration, anti-EU and anti-Islam. Wilders has boycotted the trial, claiming that it's, quote, "against freedom of expression." We've reached Saskia Belleman. She is a reporter for the Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf.

Good morning.

SASKIA BELLEMAN: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: And what exactly is it - or what comments in particular is Wilders being tried for?

BELLEMAN: He's being tried for stating that this country should get rid of Moroccans. After the elections he asked the people that visited the election evening whether they wanted more or less EU - European Union. And they said, we want less European Union. And then he asked, do you want more or less Moroccans? And then the entire hall cheered we want less Moroccans, less, less. And that's what he's being prosecuted for.

MONTAGNE: He has said this is, you know, against free speech. Is that legal? Is that a legal defense?

BELLEMAN: Well, he thinks so. But the public prosecutor says, no, he crossed a line. He acted against the law. He shouldn't be discriminating a certain group of people. He has made himself guilty of hate speech. But Wilders says, no, I did not cross a line. I just wanted to have a public debate about problems that Moroccans cause in the Netherlands. And I'm a politician, I'm allowed to say these things. And if I'm not allowed to say these things, I'm being denied my rights to speak freely.

MONTAGNE: But, of course, hate speech is actually against the law in a variety of European countries, France is another one. In the U.S., there's really no such thing. First Amendment protects speech.

BELLEMAN: Yeah, that's true. There is a difference in Holland. Our highest judge has ruled earlier in another case that politicians have a great freedom to say whatever they like because they are participants in a public debate and they should be able to say things that really shock people. But the public prosecutor is afraid that people will feel free to attack Moroccans, to discriminate them. And that's something our law forbids.

MONTAGNE: What might this trial do to change his chances in this election? I mean, could it actually make him more popular or hurt him?

BELLEMAN: It could make him more popular. It's hard to say. We'll just know when the elections are there in a couple of months. He does have the advantage of this huge refugee problem there is now. But the Moroccans have been here for a long time, for three generations at least. So they're not new immigrants. And yet, they're folded into this great concern.

So, yeah, if he plays that card, it might help him in the elections and then this court case. When he says I'm not allowed to to tell you that, it's what you think, my dear voters, but I'm not allowed to tell you that, that might be an advantage for him.

MONTAGNE: That's Saskia Belleman. She is a reporter for the Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf. Thank you again.

BELLEMAN: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.