Judges told to step down in Wilders trial

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Geert Wilders in court in Amsterdam. 22 Oct 2010
Image caption,
Geert Wilders says freedom of speech in the Netherlands is on trial

Judges in the hate speech trial of Dutch anti-Islam MP Geert Wilders have been ordered to step down by an independent appeals panel.

The move follows a request by Mr Wilders' lawyers who said they feared the judges were biased against him.

The legal process that began in January must now begin again with new judges. The trial itself started in October.

Mr Wilders faces five charges of inciting hatred and discrimination against Muslims.

If found guilty, he faces a maximum sentence of one year in jail.

Mr Wilders' lawyer Bram Moszkowicz had argued that the bench at Amsterdam District Court had created "an impression of partiality" by putting off a decision on the defence's request to recall a witness.

Being denied the opportunity to recall the witness would "make it impossible for the defence to substantiate a crucial part of its case", he added.

A hastily convened panel said on Friday that it found the trial judges' decision to be "incomprehensible in the absence of any motivation".

They said that Mr Wilders' fear of bias as a result was "understandable".

"Under the circumstances, the request [for the judges' removal] is granted," said a statement from the panel.

"Another chamber will handle the rest of the case."

Party success

Geert-Jan Alexander Knoops, an international criminal law professor at Utrecht University, told Reuters that the ruling meant there would be new judges and a new date.

"This means that the trial has to start all over again. Not the investigation phase, but the court sessions as the new judges will not have been present at the hearings," he said.

Under scrutiny in the trial are statements Mr Wilders made between 2006 and 2008, including calling Islam "fascist" and likening the Koran to Hitler's book Mein Kampf.

Mr Wilders' Freedom Party is the third biggest in the Netherlands after elections in June, and is expected to play a key role in the next parliament.