Free Speech on Trial in Europe
The "hate speech" trial of Lars Hedegaard, the president of the Danish Free Press Society and the International Free Press Society, began in a courthouse near Copenhagen on January 24. Hedegaard, who has been charged with "racism" for critical comments he made about Islam, faces up to two years in prison.
Hedegaard's trial, which is similar to recent or current ones in Austria, Finland, France, Italy and the Netherlands, represents a landmark case that will establish the limits of free speech in a country where the politically correct elite routinely seek to silence public discussion about the growing problem of Muslim immigration. The trial also exemplifies the increasing use of lawfare: the malicious use of European courts to silence criticism of Islam.
Hedegaard's legal problems began in December 2009, when he remarked in a taped interview that there was a high incidence of child rape and domestic violence in areas dominated by Muslim culture. Although Hedegaard has insisted that he did not intend to accuse all Muslims or even the majority of Muslims of such crimes, Denmark's thought police have refused to drop the case.
Instead, the Danish public prosecutor's office says Hedegaard is guilty of violating Article 266b of the Danish penal code, which states: "Whoever publicly or with the intent of public dissemination issues a pronouncement or other communication by which a group of persons are threatened, insulted or denigrated due to their race, skin colour, national or ethnic origin, religion or sexual orientation is liable to a fine or incarceration for up to two years."
The Hedegaard trial is the second one in Denmark involving Islam-related "hate speech" in as many months. On December 3, 2010, a Danish court found Jesper Langballe, a Danish politician and Member of Parliament, guilty of hate speech for saying that honor killings and sexual abuse take place in Muslim families.
Langballe was denied the opportunity to prove his allegations because, under Danish law, it is immaterial whether a statement is true or false. All that is needed for a conviction is for someone to feel offended. Langballe was summarily sentenced to pay a fine of 5,000 Danish Krone (approximately $1,000) or spend ten days in jail.
The two trials in Denmark are similar to the one against Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff in Austria, which resumed on January 18 following a two-month suspension in the hearings. Sabaditsch-Wolff, who has been charged with "incitement of hatred" and "denigrating religious teachings" after giving a series of seminars about the dangers of radical Islam, faces a possible three year prison sentence.
Sabaditsch-Wolff's legal problems began in November 2009, when she presented a three-part seminar about Islam to the Freedom Education Institute, a political academy linked to the Austrian Freedom Party. A glossy left-wing magazine, NEWS -- all in capital letters -- planted a journalist in the audience to secretly record the first two lectures. Lawyers for the socialist publication then handed the transcripts over to the Viennese public prosecutor's office as evidence of hate speech against Islam. Formal charges against Sabaditsch-Wolff were filed in September 2010; and her bench trial, presided on by one judge and no jury, began November 23.
On the first day of the trial, however, it quickly became clear that the case against Sabaditsch-Wolff was not as air-tight as prosecutors had made it out to be. The judge pointed out, for example, that only 30 minutes of the first seminar had actually been recorded. He also noted that some of the statements attributed to Sabaditsch-Wolff were offhand comments made during breaks and not a formal part of the seminar. Moreover, only a few people heard these comments, not 30 or more -- the criterion under Austrian law for a statement being "public." In any event, Sabaditsch-Wolff says her comments were not made in a public forum because the seminars were held for a select group of people who had registered beforehand.
More importantly, many of the statements attributed to Sabaditsch-Wolff were actually quotes she made directly from the Koran and other Islamic religious texts. Fearing that the trial would end in a mistrial, the judge abruptly suspended hearings until January 18, ostensibly to give him time to review the tape recordings, but also to give the prosecution more time to shore up its case.
Sabaditsch-Wolff is not the only Austrian to run afoul of the country's anti-free speech laws. In January 2009, Susanne Winter, an Austrian politician and Member of Parliament, was convicted for the "crime" of saying that "in today's system" the Islamic Prophet Muhammad would be considered a "child molester," referring to his marriage at the age of 56 to a six-year-old girl. Winter was also convicted of "incitement" for saying that Austria faces an "Islamic immigration tsunami." Winters was ordered to pay a fine of €24,000 ($31,000), and received a suspended three-month prison sentence.
Similar free speech cases involving Islam are blazing across Europe.
In Finland, for example, Jussi Kristian Halla-aho, a politician and well-known political commentator, was taken to court in March 2009 on charges of "incitement against an ethnic group" and "breach of the sanctity of religion" for saying that Islam is a religion of paedophilia. A Helsinki court later dropped the charges of blasphemy but ordered Halla-aho to pay a fine of €330 ($450) for disturbing religious worship. The Finnish public prosecutor, incensed at the lower court's dismissal of the blasphemy charges, appealed the case to the Finnish Supreme Court, where it is now being reviewed.
In France, novelist Michel Houellebecq was taken to court by Islamic authorities in the French cities of Paris and Lyon for calling Islam "the stupidest religion," and for saying the Koran is "badly written." In court, Houellebecq (pronounced Wellbeck) told the judges that although he had never despised Muslims, he did feel contempt for Islam. He was acquitted in October 2002.
Also in France, Brigitte Bardot, the legendary actress turned animal rights crusader, was convicted in June 2008 for "inciting racial hatred" after demanding that Muslims anaesthetize animals before slaughtering them. Bardot's lawyers said her passionate denunciation of the ritual slaughter of Eid al-Adha had been misinterpreted as an attack on Islam in France. Her conviction has not deterred Bardot, who says thousands of tons of Islamically slaughtered halal meat is entering France's general food chain, where it is being unwittingly consumed by the country's non-Muslim population.
In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician and Member of Parliament, faces five charges of inciting racial and religious hatred for criticizing Islam. His first trial was abruptly terminated in October 2010 after it emerged that one of the judges presiding over the trial tried to influence an expert witness to testify against Wilders. In that case, a hastily convened judicial panel agreed with Wilders that the judges were biased against him, and ordered a retrial -- sending the closely watched case back to square one before an entirely new panel of judges. Wilders, who called the trial a farce, a disgrace, and an assault on free speech, welcomed the decision, saying: "This gives me a new chance with a new fair trial."
Also in the Netherlands, Gregorius Nekschot, the pseudonym of a Dutch cartoonist who is a vocal critic of Islamic female circumcision and often mocks Dutch multiculturalism, was arrested at his home in Amsterdam in May 2008 for drawing cartoons deemed offensive to Muslims. Nekschot (which literally means "shot in the neck," a method used, according to the cartoonist, by "fascists and communists to get rid of their opponents") was released after 30 hours of interrogation by Dutch law enforcement officials.
Nekschot is expected to be prosecuted for eight cartoons that "attribute negative qualities to certain groups of people," and, as such, are insulting and constitute the crimes of discrimination and hate according to articles 137c and 137d of the Dutch Penal Code. In an interview with the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant, Nekschot said it was the first time in 800 years of the history of satire in the Netherlands that an artist was put in jail. (That interview has since been removed from the newspaper's website.)
In Italy, the late Oriana Fallaci, a journalist and author, was taken to court for writing that Islam "brings hate instead of love and slavery instead of freedom." In November 2002, a judge in Switzerland, acting on a lawsuit brought by Islamic Center of Geneva, issued an arrest warrant for Fallaci for violations of Article 261 of the Swiss criminal code; the judge asked the Italian government either to prosecute or extradite her. The Italian Justice Ministry rejected this request on the grounds that the Italian Constitution protects freedom of speech.
But in May 2005, the Union of Islamic Communities in Italy (UCOII), linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, filed a lawsuit against Fallaci, charging that "some of the things she said in her book 'The Force of Reason' are offensive to Islam." An Italian judge ordered Fallaci to stand trial in Bergamo on charges of "defaming Islam." Fallaci died of cancer in September 2006, just months after the start of her trial.
Back in Denmark, Hedegaard says the International Free Press Society is a single issue organization: "We have no other objective than free speech. That is what has kept us together and allowed us to rally people with all manner of political persuasions, programs, religions, and outlooks on life."
He also says: "We have made no bones about the fact that we consider Islam -- as it is presently being preached by all influential clerics and ideologues -- a deadly threat to all our freedoms, among which are freedom of expression. For this consistent stance we have been vilified and called every name in the book, but we will not budge."
Comment on this item
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