AMSTERDAM (AP) — Dutch anti-Islam lawmaker Geert Wilders appealed Friday for judges to throw out a hate-speech case against him, branding it a political prosecution that should not be handled in a criminal court.
"You can bring this charade of a political process to an end now," Wilders told judges in an emotional final statement to the court at a pretrial hearing.
The politically charged case comes just months before parliamentary elections that are due in March, which could see Wilders' Freedom Party emerge as the largest party. The party placed second in a poll of polls four days ago, narrowly behind the Liberal Party of Prime Minister Mark Rutte. If the court allows the case to go ahead, Wilders' trial is expected to start Oct. 31.
The case against Wilders, who was acquitted in 2011 of insulting Islam, centers on comments made before and after Dutch local elections in 2014. At one party meeting 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 replied.
Wilders told the judges his comments were no worse than those of many other Dutch lawmakers, up to and including Rutte, in the fiery public debate in the Netherlands about the place of ethnic minorities in society.
"It's right that they aren't prosecuted," Wilders said. "But I don't understand why I'm prosecuted ... and they are not."
At a hearing earlier this year, prosecutor Wouter Bos said the case pits two key pillars of the Dutch constitution against one another: A ban on discrimination and the right to 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."
Responding to that argument, Wilders' lawyer Geert-Jan Knoops insisted Friday that Wilders should be granted even more leeway in his freedom of speech because of his responsibility as a politician to discuss and offer solutions to problems in society.
And, ultimately, Knoops said, voters at the ballot box would judge Wilders and his comments.
"Such sensitive questions should be judged in the court of public opinion," Knoops said.