AMSTERDAM (AP) — Firebrand Dutch lawmaker Geert Wilders appeared in a tightly guarded courtroom Friday for the first public hearing in his politically charged prosecution on hate speech charges.
The case against Wilders, who was acquitted in 2011 in a similar case, centers on a 2014 election speech and a campaign meeting a few days later when he asked supporters whether they wanted more or fewer Moroccans in the Netherlands, drawing them into the chant of "Fewer! Fewer! Fewer!"
"We'll take care of it," he promised.
Friday's hearing at a secure courtroom near Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport comes almost exactly a year before national elections are scheduled in the Netherlands. Wilders' populist, anti-Islam Freedom Party currently leads all polls.
Prosecutor Wouter Bos said the case pits two key pillars of the Dutch constitution against one another: A ban on discrimination and the freedom of expression.
"The importance of freedom of speech is great," he said. "It is one of the essential elements of our democratic society." But, he added, "freedom of speech is not absolute."
Wilders looked relaxed as he entered the courtroom, pulling out his mobile phone to snap a picture of press photographers taking his picture before the case got underway.
A small group of supporters of the anti-immigrant Pegida group demonstrated outside the hearing in support of Wilders, one of them wearing a T-shirt and jacket emblazoned with the text "Wilders for President." The Netherlands, a constitutional monarchy, does not have a president.
Bos said that a first anti-Moroccan comment by Wilders during a local election speech was a "slip of the tongue," but the comments at the campaign meeting when Wilders reacted to the chant of "Fewer, fewer, fewer," were carefully choreographed and planned.
Bos said that one of the first people to file a complaint about Wilders' comments said he "felt sadness and anger at the same time. Would this mean that my child could not live in The Hague?"
Wilders' lawyer, Geert-Jan Knoops, demanded an investigation into how a draft copy of his opening statement was obtained by a Dutch newspaper, which published parts of it Friday. He said the case should be delayed until such an investigation is completed.
Knoops called the incident "an attack on this case, an attack on Mr. Wilders' freedom to defend himself and freely communicate with his defense team."
Wilders' trial is scheduled to begin on Oct. 31.
This story has been corrected to fix the spelling of Wilders in the first paragraph and headline.