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THE HAGUE (Reuters) - Judges will decide on Friday whether to dismiss hate speech charges against Dutch lawmaker Geert Wilders, in a case of major political and social significance for the Netherlands, just months before a general election.
If the charges are upheld, Wilders' case will go to trial, most likely during the run-up to the March 15 election. Wilders' anti-Islam Freedom Party currently tops most opinion polls.
Wilders is accused of discrimination and inciting racism for remarks in 2014, shown on television, in which he led a roomful of followers in chanting that they wanted fewer Moroccans in the country. Wilders then promised "We're going to arrange that".
Some saw the remarks as tantamount to calling for Moroccans to be expelled, and thousands filed formal complaints.
In pre-trial hearings, Wilders' lawyer Geert-Jan Knoops has argued that the remarks were protected by freedom of speech laws, which he said should be interpreted especially liberally when they were part of political discourse.
Wilders, who campaigns on an anti-Islam, anti-immigrant platform, was acquitted of hate speech charges in 2011 for various remarks including calling for a ban on the Koran, which he equated with Hitler's manifesto "Mein Kampf", and for saying that Muslim criminals should be stripped of their Dutch nationality and deported.
Many observers thought that Wilders' previous prosecution actually boosted his popularity, as it gave him a platform to present himself as a champion of freedom of speech.
Reporting by Toby Sterling; Editing by Kevin Liffey