AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Dutch politician Geert Wilders questioned the objectivity of the judge hearing his appeal on Tuesday against a conviction last December for inciting discrimination, in a trial he said was politically motivated.
On the first day of preliminary hearings Wilders confronted presiding judge Jeanne Gaakeer with her leading role in a foundation that awarded an academic prize in 2016 to someone he called “a left-wing activist”.
“This concerns me and raises the question whether you are the right person to judge me,” Wilders said, adding that the award winner “has helped organize a large anti-Wilders protest... and represents everything I fight against politically”.
The judge gave no immediate reaction to Wilders’ remarks, but said she would discuss her position with the other members of the three-judge panel after the conclusion of the day’s hearings.
Wilders’ far right Party for Freedom came second in elections in March, but he was locked out of coalition talks with mainstream parties and now leads the opposition in parliament.
The case against the 54-year-old stemmed from a 2014 campaign rally at which he led chants calling for fewer Moroccans in the Netherlands.
He was found guilty but received no sentence and was acquitted of a separate count of inciting hatred. The prosecution, which had sought a fine of 5,000 euros without a prison sentence, has also appealed against the verdict.
Wilders’ lawyer said the verdict had been a “fatal blow” to freedom of speech.
“What should have been the trial of the century on the freedom of speech, became an absolute low point”, lawyer Geert-Jan Knoops said in court.
This week judges will hear the grounds for appeal from both parties before the full case commences in May.
The hearings are being held at a special high-security courtroom. Wilders has lived in safe houses under 24-hour guard since 2004 to protect him from Islamist militants who threatened to kill him.
At the 2014 rally, Wilders led a group of supporters chanting that they wanted “Fewer! Fewer! Fewer!” in reference to the number of people of Moroccan origin in the Netherlands.
There are around 400,000 people of Moroccan origin among the Netherlands’ population of 17 million people.
As in other EU states such as Germany and France, anti-immigration sentiment in the Netherlands has risen in recent years. Wilders has called for the borders to be closed to immigrants from Muslim countries and mosques to be shut down.
A previous attempt to prosecute Wilders for anti-Islam remarks, such as likening the religion to Nazism and calling for a ban on the Koran, ended in acquittal in 2011.
Reporting by Bart Meijer,; Editing by Anthony Deutsch and Ed Osmond