The Netherlands was one of the six founding states of what became the European Union, but skepticism toward the bloc has been rising. In April, Dutch voters rejected a trade and cooperation agreement between the European Union and Ukraine, and after the British referendum on June 23 to leave the bloc, Mr. Wilders proposed that the Dutch hold a referendum on withdrawal as well.
On Friday, Mr. Wilders announced that he would not attend the trial — held in a secure courtroom near Schiphol Airport, which serves Amsterdam — because it was a “travesty” and a “political trial” that targeted “freedom of speech.” Mr. Wilders called himself “a politician who says what the politically correct elite do not want to hear.”
Mr. Wilders, 53, faces trial on two charges: offending members of a group based on their race, and hate speech and discrimination.
If convicted, he would face up to two years in prison, though people convicted of such offenses are more commonly given a fine or sentenced to community service. A conviction would certainly affect his career in Parliament, where he has been the leader of his party since 2006.
The case revolves around two sets of remarks made near the time of municipal elections in The Hague in 2014. On March 12 of that year, Mr. Wilders addressed crowds at a market; a week later, he addressed a rally in a catering establishment.
Mr. Wilders said at the rally: “I’m asking you, do you want more or fewer Moroccans in this city and in the Netherlands?” The public responded by chanting: “Fewer, fewer!” Mr. Wilders responded: “Well, we’ll arrange that, then.”
After the comments, more than 6,400 Dutch citizens filed complaints, mostly through local police offices. About 60 of those complainants requested damages, as they are allowed to do under Dutch law. Some of those demands were thrown out for various reasons — including claims for excessive reimbursement — but 35 of the complaints have been discussed in court.
The primary judge of the three overseeing the case, Hendrik Steenhuis, said that it was unfortunate that Mr. Wilders had declined to attend. “We would like to have heard the answers from Wilders, because we would have liked to ask him if what he said in the market matched the policy of his political party,” he said. Whether the comments reflected the party’s views or Mr. Wilders’s own opinions could be legally significant.
“There were so many complaints that police were worried that they would lose too much capacity over it,” said Elianne van Rens, one of the other judges, who presented the facts of the case. The cities of The Hague and Amsterdam got involved, as did the Justice Ministry, she said.
After Mr. Wilders made the comments, about 13 of the 100 elected members of his party quit national and local assemblies in protest at his remarks.
There are some significant differences between that case and the current proceedings. The earlier case focused on hate speech against individuals; this time, the target was a population group, according to a spokesman for the public prosecutor’s service, Frans Zonneveld.
“Islam is an idea, a religion, but according to the public prosecution service, you have a lot of room to criticize ideas, but when it comes to population groups, it’s a whole different matter,” Mr. Zonneveld said. “His remarks touched the very being of this population group.” He added, “You cannot choose to be part of a population group or not; it’s a group that’s decided by birth, so it’s a whole different matter.”
As Mr. Zonneveld put it, the case is about “the conflict between freedom of speech and the freedom from discrimination. These are two essential rights in the Dutch rule of law, and it’s clear that these two rights are conflicting in this case.”
On Friday, Mr. Wilders denounced the proceedings against him as a violation of his right to free speech.
“It is a travesty that I have to stand trial because I spoke about fewer Moroccans,” he said. “Not because they despise all Moroccans or want all Moroccans out of the country, but because they are sick and tired of the nuisance and terror caused by so many Moroccans.”
He added, “If speaking about this is punishable, then the Netherlands is no longer a free country but a dictatorship.”
In response, Mr. Zonneveld said, “The fact that the politician has to appear before a court doesn’t make it a political trial. The public prosecution service has to maintain the law in the Netherlands.” He added, “The whole of Dutch society and the people who have made complaints on this issue, as well as Mr. Wilders, have a right to have a court verdict on this matter.”
Judge Steenhuis suggested that Mr. Wilders’s motivations might factor into the legal considerations. “He claims that his comments have to do with crime rates, and criminal Moroccans, but he doesn’t take back his more broad statements about all Moroccans. How does this match? What does Wilders think about all this commotion? Would he have liked to use other words?”
One of the chief prosecutors, Sabina van der Kallen, expressed irritation that Mr. Wilders had failed to inform them that he would not be showing up.
“We would have appreciated if we had heard about his absence from the defense and not from the newspaper,” she said. “We would have found that courteous. He was present during the pretrial hearings. Now that it’s for real, he sneaks out the back door.”