NETHERLANDS - This week the trial began for Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who is accused of hate speech.
Hundreds of Wilders' supporters demonstrated outside an Amsterdam court Wednesday at the start of his criminal trial for allegedly inciting hate against the Dutch Muslim minority. The Dutch are not given to overstatement, but one paper calls this the "Trial of the Century."
It pits Wilders' right to free speech against European notions of political correctness, and also against Dutch Muslim fears of persecution.
"I would say as long as you put a specific group in one corner and keep on insulting them by saying things like, 'This I not your country,' and 'Muslims should leave this country'...It's hate speech," said Umar Mirza, leader in the Muslim community in the Hague.
But respected Dutch Arabist Hans Jansen, who has written 16 books on Islam, disagreed.
"The terms which Wilders uses for Muslims are not half as strong or offensive as the terms the Koran and every preacher on the pulpit in the mosques uses when describing non-Muslims," Jansen said.
Wilders is often dismissed as a racist, a fascist or a xenophobe. But his popularity shows that Wilders is saying publicly what a lot of Dutch think privately.
"He is the only man in Holland in politics who says, 'This must stop, Islamization must stop now,' because it's not good," Wilders supporter Esmeralda Hannink said.
Wilders' position against Islam has made his party, the Party for Freedom, one of the largest in the Netherlands.
In an interview about the trial, Wilders said his fight is against violent Muslim beliefs, and not with most Dutch Muslims.
"I fight the ideology. I have nothing against the people," he said. "But the ideology is that bad and that evil, that at the end of the day it will cost us our democracy, our freedom, everything that we have."
"This is a very crucial case because if he loses, I would say freedom of speech is practically dead in Europe," said Lars Hedegaard, the president of the International Free Press Society in Copenhagen, Denmark
If convicted, Wilders could get two years in prison or fines. But some Dutch legal experts expect Wilders to be acquitted.
*Originally published January 21, 2010.