AMSTERDAM (AP) — The politically charged hate-speech trial of Dutch firebrand anti-Islam lawmaker Geert Wilders got underway Monday with Wilders boycotting the opening.
Instead, his lawyer, Geert-Jan Knoops, read out a statement that the lawmaker published last Friday in which he called his case a "political trial" targeting freedom of speech.
It is not the first time Wilders, whose party is riding high in opinion polls ahead of parliamentary elections due next March, has been prosecuted. He was acquitted on hate-speech charges in 2011 after complaints about his fierce criticism of Islam.
The trial, which is scheduled to last more than three weeks, centers on comments Wilders made before and after Dutch municipal elections in 2014. At one meeting in a Hague cafe he asked supporters whether they wanted more or fewer Moroccans in the Netherlands, sparking a chant of "Fewer! Fewer! Fewer!"
"We'll take care of it," he replied, in a video recording played in court.
Reading from evidence in the case, Presiding Judge Hendrik Steenhuis cited policy workers from Wilders' populist Freedom Party as saying that the audience had been instructed beforehand how to react to Wilders' questions.
Wilders has refused to back away from the comments.
"It is my right and my duty as a politician to speak about the problems in our country," Wilders said in the statement read Monday by his lawyer.
As the trial began, Wilders tweeted: "NL has huge problem with Moroccans. To be silent about it is cowardly. Forty-three percent of Dutch want fewer Moroccans. No verdict will change that."
Wilders faces a maximum sentence of two years' imprisonment if convicted of insulting a group based on race, and inciting hatred and discrimination. However, prosecutors say courts mostly sentence people convicted of such offenses to a fine or community service order.
Prosecutor Sabina van der Kallen said she would not ask judges to order Wilders to attend the hearings as he had previously refused to answer investigators' questions.
She rejected the charge that the case is politically driven.
"The motivation of the prosecution is exclusively upholding the democratically established law, independent of politics," Van der Kallen told the court.