Dutch lawmaker fails to avoid hate speech charges

Amsterdam, The Netherlands - Dutch lawmaker Geert Wilders failed Wednesday in his bid to have judges drop or reduce charges of criminal incitement against him, despite arguing that his anti-Islam message falls within the boundaries of freedom of speech.

In a late-night decision, Amsterdam District Court said Wilders had presented no new evidence that could prompt them to reduce the charges.

Wilders, one of the country's most popular politicians, is due to go on trial in March for allegedly insulting Muslims as a group and inciting hatred and discrimination against them.

After the closed pretrial hearing in Amsterdam, Wilders said the session was "the first day of a political trial."

Charges against Wilders stem from his 2008 short film "Fitna," which offended many Muslims by juxtaposing Quranic verses with images of terrorism by Islamic radicals.

He also has called for banning the Quran in the Netherlands, closing borders to immigrants, and taxing clothing commonly worn by Muslims, such as headscarves, because they "pollute" the Dutch landscape.

Wilders' lawyer, Bram Moszkowicz, said he had petitioned judges to at least drop the charge of insulting Muslims as a group, which he said had little chance of winning a conviction. Moszkowicz cited a 2009 Supreme Court ruling that found insulting a religion is not the same as insulting followers of that religion, and not punishable under hate-speech laws.

If convicted, Wilders would face a maximum sentence of two years in prison, though a fine of up to euro18,500 ($26,800) is more likely. He could theoretically keep his seat in parliament.

Muslims make up about six percent of the Dutch population, after a wave of immigration in the 1980s and 1990s, and immigration-related issues have dominated Dutch politics since the turn of the century.

Wilders' opposition Freedom Party has grown quickly and now rivals the country's biggest in popularity polls.

Immigrant, Muslim and anti-racism groups have long sought Wilders' prosecution, saying his remarks go beyond being offensive and worsen ethnic tensions in the Netherlands, a country once noted for tolerance.