The trial of Geert Wilders has resulted in a guilty verdict. The court – which was located in a maximum security courthouse in the Netherlands near Schipol airport – found the leader of the PVV (Freedom Party) guilty of 'insulting a group' and of 'inciting discrimination'. The trial began with a number of complaints, but the proceedings gradually honed down onto one single comment made by Wilders at a party rally in March 2014. This was the occasion when Wilders asked the crowd whether they wanted 'fewer or more Moroccans in your city and in the Netherlands'. The crowd of supporters shouted 'Fewer'.
On Friday morning the court decided not to impose a jail sentence or a fine, as prosecutors had requested. The intention of the court is clearly that the 'guilty' sentence should be enough.
For Wilders himself this will have been another unpleasant ordeal. But he may have become used to them by now. Five years ago Wilders was put on trial for insulting a religion. The first trial fell apart after one of the judges was found to have attempted to influence the evidence of one of Wilders's defence witnesses. Once the trial restarted, it resulted in an acquittal. So the Dutch Justice system turn out to have been "second-time lucky" in getting the conviction they appear to have so badly wanted.
This is apparent from remarks, incomparably more damning than "fewer Moroccans", made by members of the Netherlands' Labour Party, who of course were never prosecuted:
- "We also have s*** Moroccans over here." Rob Oudkerk, Dutch Labour Party (PvDA) politician.
- "We must humiliate Moroccans." Hans Spekman, PvDA politician.
- "Moroccans have the ethnic monopoly on trouble-making." Diederik Samsom, PvDA politician.
Wilders's legal trials are perhaps the least of it. For more than a decade Wilders has had to live under permanent security protection because of the threat to his life from Muslim extremists in the Netherlands. One might agree or disagree with a person who believes there should be fewer Moroccans in the Netherlands, but it requires an extraordinary degree of callousness to prosecute someone whose life is in danger from parts of such a community for voicing a desire not to see that community grow. The irony cannot have been lost on the wider world that on the same day that news of Wilders's conviction came out the other news from Holland was the arrest of a 30 year-old terror suspect in Rotterdam suspected of being about to carry out 'an act of terrorism'.
There are two aspects to this verdict which matter. The first is what it will do for Wilders himself. Domestically, within the Netherlands, it is hard to say. On the one hand it is possible that his supporters and others will be galvanised by the intrusion of the judiciary into politics and by the nakedly partisan and political nature of this trial. Many observers predict a boost in the polls for Wilders, who may benefit from this further proof of what he has often said – that it is Wilders against the Dutch establishment.
But internationally and among a good many Dutch nationals the conviction will carry a stigma. Internationally it will continuously be used against Wilders that he has been convicted of 'inciting discrimination' even though the charge is about a proto-crime – a crime that has not even occurred: like charging the makers of a car chase movie for 'inciting speeding'. As with many 'hate-crime' trials across the free world, from Denmark to Canada, the aim of the proceedings is to blacken the name of the party on trial so that they are afterwards formally tagged as a lesser, or non-person. If this sounds Stalinist it is because it is.
In the long-term, though, there is something even more insidious about this trial. For as we have noted here before, if you prosecute somebody for saying that they want fewer Moroccans in the Netherlands then the only legal views able to be expressed about the matter are that the number of Moroccans in the country must remain at precisely present numbers or that you would only like more Moroccans in the country. In a democratic society this sort of matter ought to be debatable. But the judges in the Wilders case have tried to make it un-debatable. By prosecuting somebody for expressing one opinion they have sent out a message to all citizens. And that is where the stifling effect of the Wilders trial will be felt.
It will be felt by all those Dutch men and women who have concerns about the direction their country is going in, including concerns that the rate of immigration has been too high in recent years. Many of these people will already have felt a certain social pressure not to air their views and now there is the additional restraining factor that their views have been made illegal. At social gatherings across the land the people who believe that there should only ever be more Moroccans in the Netherlands will have an additional card to play against anyone who believes the opposite. For their conversational partner will not merely be risking a social embarrassment but will be standing on the verge of committing a crime.
Any half-way civilised society – as the Netherlands most certainly is – must see that trying to squash contrary views in such a manner is the behaviour of tyrants. This gang-up of the courts and the political elite in an effort to crush dissenting opinion is unbecoming for a great and distinguished nation such as The Netherlands. But they may yet have their comeuppance.
If there is one great mental note of which 2016 ought to have reminded the world, it is how deeply unwise it is to try to police opinion. For when you do so you not only make your society less free, but you disable yourself from being able to learn what your fellow citizens are actually – perhaps ever more secretly – feeling. Then one day you will hear them. And only then – when it is too late – will you remember why you should have listened.
Douglas Murray, British author, commentator and public affairs analyst, is based in London, England