Dutch retrial ordered for Wilders hate speech case

Amsterdam, The Netherlands - A Dutch court ordered a retrial Friday for anti-Islam lawmaker Geert Wilders, sending the closely-watched hate speech case back to square one before a whole new panel of judges.

The far-right politician faces charges of inciting hatred against Muslims for many remarks, including some equating Islam with fascism and violence and others calling for a ban on the Quran and a tax on Muslim headscarves.

Wilders accused judges at the Amsterdam District Court of bias and called for their dismissal after they refused to recall a defense witness who wrote on a weblog that a member of an appeals panel directly involved in the case had improperly contacted him.

A hastily convened substitute panel ruled Friday that Wilders' objections were valid, which means the trial that began in January must restart from the beginning with new judges.

Wilders welcomed the decision.

"This gives me a new chance on a new fair trial," he said in an e-mail to The Associated Press. "I am confident that I can only be acquitted because I have broken no law but spoke the truth and nothing but the truth and exercised my freedom of speech in an important public debate about the dangerous totalitarian ideology called Islam."

Judge G. Marcus said the panel understood Wilders' "fear that the court's decision displays a degree of bias ... and under those circumstances accepts the appeal."

Since the charges were filed, Wilders' party has become part of the Netherland's ruling conservative government, making him one of the most powerful politicians in the nation.

Wilders' case pits his right to freedom of speech against the right of Muslims to worship freely. Dozens of complaints had been filed against Wilders by Muslims who said they felt insulted or threatened by remarks such as "let not one more Muslim immigrate" and "I've had enough of the Quran in the Netherlands: Forbid that fascist book."

Prosecutors initially refused to take the case, saying Wilders' remarks are part of legitimate political debate. But they were ordered to do so by appeals judges, who said there was sufficient evidence for a hate speech trial.

Defense witness Hans Jansen, called as an expert on Islamic culture, wrote on his personal website that he had been approached at a dinner party by one of the appeals judges, Tom Schalken.

"He kept steering the conversation back to the Wilders case," Jansen wrote. "He tried to convince me that his decision to drag Wilders in front of the Amsterdam District Court was correct."

Wilders earlier had asked the court to dismiss the judges because one said that Wilders appeared to be dodging debate by remaining silent in court. That motion was rejected.

The politician asked again Friday that the judges be dismissed, calling Schalken's contact with Jansen "scandalous."

"A judge that's part of my process in the sense that he decided I should be prosecuted ... without blinking an eye goes to dinner and tries to convince a witness that he's right," Wilders told a new panel of judges convened to rule on the dismissal. "I wonder which circus I've landed in here."

A conservative government that depends on Wilders' Freedom Party to reach a one-vote majority in parliament took office this month. In return for his support, the government has vowed to turn away more asylum seekers, halve the number of new immigrants from non-Western countries, ban face-concealing Muslim garb for women in public and force immigrants to pay for their own mandatory citizenship classes.