AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Right-wing Dutch MP Geert Wilders said on Wednesday that freedom of speech in his country was threatened, as he went on trial in Amsterdam charged with inciting hatred and discrimination against Muslims.
The Freedom Party leader, who has faced death threats over his political views, made the film "Fitna" in 2008 which accused the Koran of inciting violence and mixed images of terrorist attacks with quotations from the Islamic holy book.
He was also charged because of his outspoken remarks in the media, such as an opinion piece in a Dutch daily in which he compared Islam to fascism and the Koran to Adolf Hitler's book "Mein Kampf".
"I believe in my heart and soul that freedom in the Netherlands is being threatened," Wilders told the court. "It is not only our right, but our obligation as free people to speak out against every ideology that restricts freedom."
In a five-minute speech to the court in which he also quoted Thomas Jefferson, author of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, Wilders predicted future generations would ask how "we in 2010, in this place, in this room" defended freedom.
The prosecutor, reacting to the many complaints about Wilders, originally said he was protected by the right to free speech, but a court overruled him and ordered that Wilders be charged. The MP faces a maximum of one year and three months imprisonment if convicted on both counts.
Both prosecution and defense said the case lies at the heart of the constitutional state, exploring the line between the right to freedom of speech and the ban on discrimination in the traditionally tolerant Netherlands.
Defense lawyer Bram Moszkowicz challenged the court's jurisdiction and the prosecution's case, saying that the Supreme Court should handle the case because Wilders was a politician.
"Wilders has made all his comments in his capacity as a member of parliament," Moszkowicz said, adding that Wilders had the right to comment on developments in society.
Prosecutor Birgit van Roessel said Wilders' remarks must be tested against the "existing legal framework."
A fierce opponent of Islam in European culture, Wilders -- with his trademark blonde hair -- is popular among Dutch voters worried about immigration and its impact on Dutch society.
The Freedom Party became the second-largest Dutch party in the European Parliament last year, and recent polls indicated it could become the biggest party in the Dutch parliament in national elections due in May 2011.
"I remain combative and still convinced that this political process will only lead to an acquittal," Wilders has said.
Outside the court, a crowd of protesters gathered behind police barriers to voice support for Wilders, carrying banners saying "Freedom Yes" and "Wilders trial, a political trial".
An anti-racism group placed 100 comments by Wilders online at www.watwilwilders.nl to back its allegation that he is responsible for xenophobia and discrimination and that his remarks are not only criticism of a religion.
Official figures show Muslims made up about 5 percent of the Dutch population in 2007-08.
The court must now rule on the challenge to its jurisdiction and adjourned the case to February 3 when it will decide how to proceed.
Besides expert witnesses, Moszkowicz plans to call Mohammed Bouyeri, the convicted killer of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh. Wilders has said Bouyeri is "living proof" that Islam inspires violence, but the prosecution is opposed to Bouyeri giving evidence.
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