THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — A Dutch court on Friday rejected an appeal by firebrand anti-Islam lawmaker Geert Wilders to throw out his hate speech prosecution before it goes to trial this month.
"Prosecuted for what millions of people believe," Wilders tweeted in his first reaction to the decision. Wilders and his lawyers have branded his prosecution a political witch hunt and did not attend the brief hearing at The Hague District Court.
Clearing the trial to start on Oct. 31, Presiding Judge Hendrik Steenhuis said the court "rejects the defense's objections."
The case against Wilders, who was previously 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.
The trial comes just months before parliamentary elections due in March, which could see Wilders' Freedom Party emerge as the largest party. An Oct. 5 poll of polls had the Freedom Party narrowly behind the Liberal Party of Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who will be seeking his third term at the elections.
The court said Friday that previous cases in European courts have established that politicians must be given a wide-ranging freedom of expression, but at the same time should "avoid public statements that feed intolerance. Where the border lies between the two will be debated in this Dutch trial."
The court also rejected Wilders' argument that he should not be prosecuted now as he had not been prosecuted in the past for similar statements about Moroccans.
At a previous hearing, Wilders' defense lawyer, Geert-Jan Knoops, told judges that the freedom of expression is "the last freedom Mr. Wilders has left." The lawmaker has lived with around-the clock protection for more than a decade because of repeated death threats.