AMSTERDAM/NEW YORK (Reuters) - Anti-Islam groups in America have provided financial support to Dutch politician Geert Wilders, an anti-immigration campaigner who is seeking re-election to the Dutch parliament this week.
While this is not illegal in the Netherlands, it sheds light on the international connections of Wilders, whose Freedom Party is the least transparent Dutch parliamentary group and a rallying point for Europe’s far right.
Wilders’ party is self-funded, unlike other Dutch parties that are subsidized by the government. It does not, therefore, have to meet the same disclosure requirements.
Groups in America seeking to counter Islamic influence in the West say they funded police protection and paid legal costs for Wilders whose party is polling in fourth place before the Sept 12 election.
Wilders’ ideas - calling for a halt to non-Western immigration and bans on Muslim headscarfs and the construction of mosques - have struck a chord in mainstream politics beyond the Netherlands. France banned clothing that covers the face in April 2011 and Belgium followed suit in July of the same year. Switzerland barred the construction of new minarets following a referendum in 2009.
The Middle East Forum, a pro-Israeli think tank based in Philadelphia, funded Wilders’ legal defense in 2010 and 2011 against Dutch charges of inciting racial hatred, its director Daniel Pipes said.
The Middle East Forum has a stated goal, according to its website, of protecting the “freedom of public speech of anti-Islamist authors, promoting American interests in the Middle East and protecting the constitutional order from Middle Eastern threats”. It sent money directly to Wilders’ lawyer via its Legal Project, Pipes said.
Represented by Dutch criminal lawyer Bram Moscowitz, Wilders successfully defended himself against the charges, which were brought by prosecutors in Amsterdam on behalf of groups representing minorities from Turkey, Morocco and other countries with Muslim populations.
The case heard in October 2010 was filed in response to Wilders’ comments in the Dutch media about Muslims and his film “Fitna”, which interlays images of terrorist attacks with quotations from the Koran and prompted protests by Muslims in Islamic countries worldwide. The court found he had stayed within the limits of free speech.
Pipes declined to say how much his group paid for Wilders’ defense.
Moscowitz declined to discuss payments for Wilders’ defense, citing client confidentiality.
Wilders said in an emailed statement that his legal expenses were paid for with the help of voluntary donations from defenders of freedom of speech.
“I do not answer questions of who they are and what they have paid. This could jeopardize their safety,” Wilders said.
Wilders, 49, first became a member of the Dutch parliament for the pro-business Liberal Party before winning nine seats for his own Freedom Party in 2006, campaigning against Islam, which he calls a threat to Dutch culture and Western values.
He called Islam a violent political ideology and vowed never to enter a mosque, “not in 100,000 years”. His party won 24 seats in the 150-seat lower house in June 2010.
He has been under 24-hour security for eight years after receiving death threats from radical Muslim groups in the Netherlands and abroad. Norwegian mass killer Anders Breivik cited anti-Islamic comments by Wilders in an online manifesto that sought to justify his crimes. Wilders has denounced Breivik and his actions.
David Horowitz, who runs a network of Los Angeles-based conservative groups and a website called FrontPage magazine, said he paid Wilders fees for making two speeches, security costs during student protests and overnight accommodation for his Dutch bodyguards during a 2009 U.S. trip.
Horowitz said he paid Wilders for one speech in Los Angeles and one at Temple University in Philadelphia. He declined to specify the amounts, but said that Wilders had received “a good fee.”
When Wilders’ Philadelphia appearance sparked student protests, Horowitz said, he paid a special security fee of about $1,500 to the Philadelphia police department. Horowitz said he also paid for overnight accommodation for four or five Dutch government bodyguards accompanying Wilders on the trip.
Wilders said in response: “I am frequently asked to speak abroad. Whenever possible I accept these invitations. I never ask for a fee. However, sometimes the travel and accommodation expenses are paid. My personal security is always paid for by the Dutch government.”
Pipes and Horowitz denied funding Wilders’ political activities in Holland. Both run non-profit, tax exempt research and policy organizations which, under U.S. tax laws, are forbidden from giving direct financial backing to any political candidate or party. U.S. law does allow such groups to support policy debates financially.
During Wilders’ visit to Los Angeles, where Horowitz runs an organization called the David Horowitz Freedom Center, Horowitz said he organized an event at which Danish cartoons lampooning the Prophet Mohammed were auctioned. He said he did not remember how much money this event raised or what happened to the proceeds.
Horowitz agreed with the Dutchman’s repeated, public comparison of the Koran to Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Comparing the two works was a “fair analogy,” Horowitz said. He said Wilders was “fighting the good fight.”
Horowitz said U.S. backers helped Wilders raise money to pay legal fees to fight a ban from visiting Britain in 2009, where he planned to screen Fitna. The British government said at the time: “The Government opposes extremism in all its forms. The decision to refuse Wilders admission was taken on the basis that his presence could have inflamed tensions between our communities and have led to inter-faith violence.”
Wilders won an appeal in the British courts in October 2009 when the ban was overturned.
Wilders has other supporters in the United States, such as Pamela Geller, who runs Stop Islamization of America and has backed Wilders in public statements. Geller remains a supporter. She says she does not provide Wilders with financial assistance.
Wilders has not revealed how his political activities are paid for. Former Freedom Party officials have said he has no personal funds and almost entirely relies on foreign donations.
Like other Dutch political parties, members of parliament for the Freedom Party have been allocated 165,000 euros ($211,200) per year for expenses. Former Freedom Party officials speaking on condition of anonymity said the money, nearly 4 million euros per year, went to the party and has not been accounted for.
Wilders said in his emailed response that former Freedom Party officials making such allegations were bitter and spiteful. “These people have other motives than telling the truth,” he said.
“Our party has a sixty euro annual budget. The rumors about millions of euros in sponsoring are complete nonsense. A Freedom Party-related foundation receives donations from Dutch or foreign sources, but these are modest amounts of money and certainly never millions,” it continued.
The Dutch government turned down requests for additional information about Freedom Party finances.
“I do not possess relevant information or documents” about the Freedom party finances or campaign contributions because the party does not receive subsidies, Dutch Minister for Internal Affairs Liesbeth Spies said in a written response.
Editing by Janet McBride