Anti-Islam lawmaker asks for hate speech acquittal

Amsterdam, Netherlands - Lawyers for a Dutch politician who has harshly criticized Islam argued at his trial Tuesday that he has the right to issue warnings about the religion's spread in Europe and should be acquitted of inciting hatred and discrimination.

Geert Wilders, one of the Netherlands' most popular politicians, is charged with violating hate speech laws by equating Islam to Nazism, calling for a tax on "head rags" and advocating a ban on the Quran. His film "Fitna" argued that Islam is a violent and intolerant religion - drawing protests from Muslims around the world.

Lawyer Bram Moszkowicz said Wilders is exercising his right to freedom of speech and compared him to historical figures who were willing to voice unpopular opinions, including Winston Churchill and Galileo.

"Wilders makes the hate of others known, and warns about it vigorously," Moszkowicz said. "Don't shoot the messenger."

Prosecutors had initially declined to press charges against Wilders, but were ordered to do so by an appeals court.

After concluding their evidence last week, prosecutors said Wilders' statements were part of legitimate political debate, acknowledged they could not prove a case against him, and called for his acquittal. But judges could still convict him.

A verdict is expected Nov. 5. If convicted Wilders could face up to a year of prison, though a small fine is more likely.

Alleged victims testified on Monday that Wilders' remarks have poisoned opinions against Muslims, leading to a range of problems including verbal abuse against women wearing headscarves, Moroccan youth having trouble finding jobs, and mosque burnings.

Moszkowicz said that not only should Wilders be acquitted, but the whole case should be dismissed. He argued that the appeals court that ordered the trial had failed to presume Wilders innocent.

Wilders' trial is being closely watched in many European countries, where immigration has created a backlash of anti-Muslim sentiment and boosted nationalist parties that are outspokenly negative toward Islam and Muslims.

With support from Wilders, a new minority Cabinet formed in the Netherlands this month plans to ban face-covering burqas and force immigrants to pay for their own mandatory citizenship classes.

It also plans to tighten asylum procedures and make it harder for immigrants to marry spouses from outside Europe.

Muslims make up about 6 percent of the 16.5 million Dutch population.