Newly released documents show that senior members of the Dutch government — including the former prime minister and justice minister — applied political pressure on public prosecutors to indict Geert Wilders, leader of the Party for Freedom for "hate speech." Pictured: Wilders (left) sits next to current Prime Minister Mark Rutte at a meeting of political party leaders at the Dutch House of Representatives on March 16, 2017 in The Hague. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
Newly released documents show that senior members of the Dutch government — including the prime minister and two former justice ministers — applied political pressure on public prosecutors to indict Geert Wilders, leader of the Party for Freedom (Partij voor de Vrijheid, PVV), for hate speech for comments he made about Islam and Moroccan immigrants.
The documents, which the government turned over to the Amsterdam-based newspaper De Volkskrant in compliance with a Freedom of Information request, appear to confirm long-standing allegations by Wilders that the government's decade-long legal war against him is far from a principled pursuit of justice, and instead politically motivated and aimed at silencing his criticism of multiculturalism and mass migration from the Muslim world.
On February 3, De Volkskrant reported that the government documents — numbering nearly 500 pages — show that as early as 2008, then-Justice Minister Ernst Hirsch Ballin was "intensively involved" in the decision to prosecute Wilders.
According to De Volkskrant, the Public Prosecution Service (Openbaar Ministerie, OM) found nothing illegal about Wilders statements, but Hirsch Ballin pressed the OM on three separate occasions to change its assessment.
In June 2008, the OM dismissed more than 40 criminal complaints against Wilders on the grounds that his statements were made "in the context of political debate" and therefore "not of a punishable nature."
In January 2009, the Amsterdam Appeals Court, the second-highest legal authority in the Netherlands, overturned the OM's decision and ruled that Wilders could be tried for inciting hatred. Wilders said that it was a "black day for myself and for freedom of speech."
The first trial against Wilders began on October 4, 2010. He was accused of insulting religious and ethnic groups and inciting hatred and discrimination for describing Islam as fascist and comparing the Koran to Adolf Hitler's book Mein Kampf. Wilders argued that his statements were directed at Islam as an ideology and not at individual Muslim believers.
The trial collapsed on October 22, 2010, after it emerged that Tom Schalken, one of the judges in the case, had tried to sway a potential witness.
The retrial began on February 6, 2011 with three new judges. Wilders said that his trial was about preserving freedom of expression in the West.
On June 23, 2011, Wilders was acquitted of all charges. Judge Marcel van Oosten ruled that the statements by Wilders, while "gross and denigrating," did not meet the standard of hate speech and as such were "acceptable within the context of public debate."
Despite the acquittal, the government's harassment of Wilders continued. Internal government emails recently published by RTL Nieuws show that Hirsch Ballin's successor, Justice Minister Ivo Opstelten, repeatedly pressured the OM to bring a new case against Wilders. Opstelten, his aides and the prosecutor repeatedly consulted with each other before the decision to prosecute Wilders a second time was made in the fall of 2014. The OM has always denied that it was subject to outside political interference; the emails show that the OM denials were untruthful. An email sent by the lead prosecutor, Wouter Bos, on October 8, 2014, warned: "This must not leak!"
Other government emails show that the decision to bring a new case against Wilders was discussed as early as March 2014 in the Council of Ministers, the executive council of Dutch government, formed by all the ministers, including the prime minister. The emails indicate that Prime Minister Mark Rutte himself was involved in the decision to prosecute Wilders.
On March 18, 2016, Wilders went on trial again for allegedly inciting hatred against Moroccan immigrants. Prosecutors said that in March 2014, Wilders, while campaigning in The Hague, asked a crowd of supporters if they wanted more or fewer Moroccans in the Netherlands. The crowd said fewer. Wilders responded: "We'll take care of that."
Prosecution spokeswoman Ilse de Heer said that Wilders "targeted a specific race, which is considered a crime." Wilders countered that his comments referred to Moroccan criminals, not to Moroccans in general, and that, in any event, Moroccans are not a race.
On December 9, 2016, Wilders was found guilty of inciting discrimination. The court, however, imposed no form of punishment; it said that the verdict was a sufficient penalty. The Public Prosecutor demanded a fine of €5,000 ($5,500). Both Wilders and the Prosecutor appealed.
Since then, Wilders has been entangled in a protracted legal process that shows no signs of ending anytime soon. In an appeal hearing on February 5, 2020, Wilders voiced his anger over the political nature of the case against him:
"Presiding Judge, members of the court: The shamelessness of the Public Prosecution Office knows no boundaries. In a report we received yesterday and heard about today, they claim — one-and-a-half days after they received the documents from the Ministry of Justice — that nothing is wrong, that nothing has been found that indicates political influence.
"Rarely have I seen attorney generals who are so damaging to the rule of law, who don't care about a fair trial. They are blinded by their hatred for me and the PVV. These kinds of people, like those two attorney generals, ensure that the trust of ordinary people, the common man and woman in the Netherlands, in the public prosecutor and the judiciary has fallen to a low point.
"The Public Prosecutor says that there is nothing wrong. Shame on you, attorney generals. What we all know now is enough to immediately end this political process, this charade....
"We already knew, Mr. Presiding Judge and members of the court, that officials from the Ministry of Justice, under the responsibility of former Justice Minister Ivo Opstelten, had adjusted press releases from the public prosecutor. That it was Minister Opstelten himself who wanted two press releases. That his officials had made a legal analysis of this case. And shared this with the public prosecutor.
"We already knew that they had helped the public prosecutor refute the defenses of the defense. That, for example, the phrase, 'we will arrange that' was brought to the attention of the public prosecutor by the Ministry of Justice. That they wanted to see the requisites in advance to provide comments.
"And now there are 475 pieces again. And indeed, we have not been able to read all of them, I mean, we could hardly read any of the pieces. But if I only look at what the media writes about it, such as Volkskrant or RTL journalist Pieter Klein, then only more shocking things have come to the surface.
"It even appears now that it [the case] has been discussed in the Council of Ministers, Mr. Presiding Judge. In the Council of Ministers. How much more political does it get?
"The documents show that a senior official of the Ministry of General Affairs of Prime Minister Rutte informed a senior official of Ministry of Justice of Minister Opstelten that the Prime Minister expects the Minister of Justice to be able to say something meaningful during the Council of Ministers of March 21, 2014 about whether the prosecution of Wilders is promising.
"How promising it is! Promising: according to the dictionary, I looked it up, that also means likely, successful. It has a positive connotation. The Council of Ministers, Mr. Presiding Judge. This concerns an opposition leader in the House of Representatives. That is shameful, but that is, unfortunately, not unique, because we also know from the documents that we received yesterday that it was — in relation to the Wilders 1 trial, but I still want to have mentioned it, to indicate what they are capable of — that it was then Justice Minister Hirsch Ballin who requested legal advice three times because he did not like the earlier advice that it was impossible to prosecute Wilders. He repeated his requests for advice until he received the advice he wanted.
"Back to this trial. Apart from the fact that it was discussed in the Council of Ministers — words cannot express, it does not become much more political and corrupt — former [Justice] Minister Van der Steur, the documents show, deliberately and personally stopped the publication, on the basis of the Dutch Freedom of Information Act (WOB), of an official message about my persecution. Minister Van der Steur stopped that.
"According to the documents, the decision on the WOB request was delayed until after the decision of the Court of First Instance. Until after my conviction. Imagine that. Mafia practices. Pure political influence of the worst kind. A minister who deliberately withholds relevant and possibly exculpatory documents until after the conviction. Words really cannot express...
"If we had received those documents earlier and also all the other documents requested on that basis, and now also obtained with the permission of your court, then perhaps it might not have come to a conviction at all...then the court might not have decided on a conviction in the first instance.
"Minister Van der Steur has deliberately withheld those documents, as is apparent from these documents. Moreover, it appears that another Justice Minister, Minister Opstelten, lied when he said during his interrogation by the commissioner, that outside the Council of Ministers — you can find it literally in the reports — he never spoke about this matter with other ministers.
"The documents that we received yesterday show that he did indeed talk to other ministers about this outside the Council of Ministers, namely with Interior Minister Ronald Plasterk.
"Mr. Presiding Judge, the Minister of Justice interfered in detail with my conviction. The documents even state that the Ministry of Justice instructed the public prosecutor — you will find the word 'instruct' in the documents — when and at what time they had to call me on October 9, 2014, to say that I was a suspect. For a phone call to me, saying that I was a suspect, the Public Prosecutor's Office was instructed by the Ministry of Justice when and at what time and on what day that had to happen.
"My case has been dealt with in detail. And this whole trial, just like the Wilders 1 trial, is permeated with political influence. From phone calls, up to the Council of Ministers, and to ministers who withheld or delayed documents, an opposition leader from the national parliament has been prosecuted for ten years that way.
"Politics have always been involved, from civil servants to ministers and the Council of Ministers. Every day that this trial continues and you do not punish the conspiring prosecution, and the Ministry of Justice for their lies and haggling with the principles of an independent, fair and balanced trial, by declaring them inadmissible, every day this trial continues is a black day in the history of Dutch justice.
"This trial will have to stop today. I have said it many times. To be honest, I find it incomprehensible that this has not been decided long ago by declaring the prosecution inadmissible. If in the unfortunate event, even after today, you want to continue with this trial again, then indeed, and you have just said that, Mr. Presiding Judge, we need ample time to read all those documents and possibly based on those documents, also call new witnesses, like Minister Van der Steur. Like the prime minister. Like all the people involved.
"It is clear from these documents that they are more involved than we already knew. And see the minutes, the records, of the Council of Ministers as well. It appears to have been discussed. It has been said by the General Affairs official against the Justice official: '[Prime Minister Mark] Rutte wants to say something about the chances of this trial, Ivo [Opstelten].' And Ivo went to the Council of Ministers on March 21. This has always been denied. Denied during the interrogations. Now it appears to have just happened. I want to see those documents from the Council of Ministers. I want to talk to people about it. It is not just about someone who steals a roll of licorice. It is about the opposition leader in the Dutch parliament whose persecution has been influenced up to the Council of Ministers.
"I want to hear the truth. I want to hear more than the truth about the political influence in this trial so that this trial is taken off the table as quickly as possible."
Veteran Dutch journalist Joost Niemöller wrote:
"On February 3, just before another hearing in the endless criminal case against Wilders, a bulk of internal documents were dropped by Justice Minister Ferdinand Grapperhaus which relate to the official and political involvement in this trial. These documents were intended for the House of Representatives and are now public.
"If the Chamber takes its task seriously, it must investigate the political nature of this lawsuit. That is emphatically not an investigation into the trial itself — after all, we have a separation of powers here — but an investigation into the political role behind the continuation of this trial....
"In the Wilders case, we certainly do not have to rely on the judge to agree with Wilders and to reach the conclusion that there has been a political trial, which is therefore not legally valid.... After the internal documents released, the issue has become even more flammable.
"The Wilders case appears to have been pre-cooked in the cabinet itself.... [Prime Minister] Rutte himself was involved.... The lying and spinning must stop somewhere.
"The anger of Wilders in court was only too understandable, and all too justified. It is the anger of more and more Dutch people. Even in the mainstream media it is now recognized that this political pre-cooking goes beyond all limits.
"This is the umpteenth example in which democracy is excluded by the judiciary, because the judiciary and the OM have become an extension of politics.
"This point is increasingly emphasized by, among others, Forum for Democracy leader Thierry Baudet, whose hypocritical opponents accuse him of rejecting the rule of law.
"This rule of law, in which judges and prosecutors receive instructions by the politicians on how to act, is rotten from within."
Wilders' trial will continue on March 23. Four additional hearings are scheduled for April. It remains unclear when his trial will end.