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Dutch anti-Islam lawmaker Wilders appeals discrimination conviction

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Dutch anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders began his appeal on Thursday against a conviction for inciting discrimination, accusing prosecutors of trying to destroy his right to free speech.

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Wilders, whose party finished second in an election last year, is the leader of the opposition in the Netherlands and one of the leading figures in Europe’s far right.

“What the Islamists haven’t been able to do to me, the prosecutors are trying to do anyway: destroy freedom of expression,” Wilders said on Twitter before the start of Thursday’s hearing, held in a special high-security courtroom near Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport.

Wilders is appealing against his 2016 conviction for inciting discrimination, over a campaign rally at which he asked supporters whether they wanted more or fewer Moroccans in the country. When they chanted “Fewer! Fewer!” he replied: “We’re going to take care of that.”

His lawyer Geert-Jan Knoops argued at the start of proceedings that the criteria that determined whether speech was discriminatory were hazy and had been “selectively applied” against Wilders.

To support his argument, he noted that prosecutors did not press charges against Wilders’ biggest domestic political rival, Alexander Pechtold of the centrist D66 Party, over a remark earlier this year possibly insulting to Russians.

Knoops asked for a delay in proceedings until prosecutors released information about that case. Prosecutor Gerard Sta told judges there was no reason to delay the appeal.

“This case is about two words: ‘fewer’ and ‘Moroccans’,” he said. “There’s no question as to whether the suspect said them, there’s only the question of how they should be explained.”

He said that discussion of Pechtold’s case was tangential when Wilders could address the charges against him head on.

“I would like to invite (you) to join the debate,” Sta said. “Would you like to say something, Mr. Wilders?”

Wilders replied that he would not participate in “a prosecution whose goal is to have me gagged.”

“I should not be here. This debate belongs in parliament.”

Prosecutors are also appealing against Wilders’ acquittal over separate charges of inciting hatred. Prosecutors have sought a fine of 5,000 euros ($5,900) but no jail time.

Article 1 of the Dutch constitution forbids discrimination on any grounds. Wilders says he has never called for violence and has explained he believes the number of Moroccans in the country can be reduced by legal means. He was previously acquitted of hate speech in 2011.

The appeals hearings run through June 6, with a verdict expected a month later.

Wilders has lived in safe houses under 24-hour guard since 2004 to protect him from Islamist militants who threaten to kill him. He says Islam is a fascist ideology, and has called for halting immigration from Muslim countries, shutting mosques and banning the Koran.

Editing by Anthony Deutsch and Alison Williams