AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Dutch anti-Islam opposition leader Geert Wilders goes on trial on Monday for inciting hatred and discrimination, 18 months after he led a chant for fewer Moroccans in the country and called them scum during campaigning for local elections.
A verdict is due in December, just months before a March 15 parliamentary election in which Wilders' Freedom Party is vying for first place with Prime Minister Mark Rutte's conservative VVD, which rules in a fragile coalition with Labour.
An Oct. 27 poll shows Wilders trailing Rutte by a margin of two seats in the 150-seat legislature. He is poised to more than double his number of seats in the lower house.
Wilders, who said on Friday he would not attend the hearings but just be represented by his lawyer, faces a fine of up to 7,400 euros ($8,100) and two years in jail for the remarks in early 2014.
Wilders called the trial, on one charge of discrimination and a second for inciting hatred of Moroccans, an attempt to strip him of his right to free speech and said it was politically motivated.
Under Dutch law, no formal plea is entered, but Wilders denies the charges and argues that he was only saying what millions of Dutch people think.
Although Wilders has never governed, his tough line on immigration and Islam have set the tone of political debate in the Netherlands for a decade.
Moroccans make up about 2 percent of the population of roughly 17 million.
Wilders says Moroccans make up a disproportionate share of welfare recipients and criminals and that they have integrated poorly after coming to the Netherlands as laborers in the 1960s and 1970s. There are roughly 400,000, predominantly Muslim, Dutch Moroccans, making them the sixth largest ethnic group in the country.
He was acquitted of inciting racial hatred in 2011 after he called for the Koran to be banned and for "criminal" Moroccans to be deported.
During three weeks of hearings at a high security courtroom near Amsterdam's Schiphol airport, prosecutors and defense attorney Geert-Jan Knoops will present their cases and call potential witnesses before a panel of judges.
Reporting by Anthony Deutsch; Editing by Alison Williams