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Free Speech on Trial in Austria

The trial of Austrian anti-Sharia activist Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff for “denigrating” Islam has major implications for free speech in Europe.

Free Speech on Trial in Austria

Soeren Kern | PJ Media | January 21, 2011

The “hate speech” trial of the Austrian housewife and anti-Islam activist Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff resumed at a Vienna courthouse on January 18, following a two-month break in the hearings. Sabaditsch-Wolff, who has been charged with “incitement of hatred” and “denigrating religious teachings” after giving a series of seminars about the dangers of radical Islam, faces a possible three year prison sentence. Her case, which is eerily similar to the one involving the Dutch politician Geert Wilders, reflects the growing use lawfare, the malicious use of European courts to silence politically-incorrect speech about Islam.

Sabaditsch-Wolff’s legal problems began in November 2009, when she presented a three-part seminar about Islam to the Freedom Education Institute, a political academy linked to the Austrian Freedom Party. A glossy left-wing magazine called NEWS – all in capital letters – planted a journalist in the audience to secretly record the first two lectures. Lawyers for the publication then handed the transcripts over to the Viennese public prosecutors office as evidence of hate speech against Islam, one of the officially recognized religions under Austrian law. Formal charges against Sabaditsch-Wolff were filed in September 2010 and her bench trial, presided by one judge and no jury, began on November 23.

One the first day of the trial, however, it quickly became apparent that the case against Sabaditsch-Wolff was not as air-tight as prosecutors had made it out to be. For example, the judge pointed out that only 30 minutes of the first seminar had actually been recorded. The judge also noted that some of the statements attributed to Sabaditsch-Wolff were offhand comments made during breaks and were not a formal part of the seminar. Moreover, only a few people heard these comments, not 30 or more, the criterion under Austrian law for a statement being “public.” In any case, Sabaditsch-Wolff says her comments were not made in a public forum because the seminars were held for a select group of people who had registered beforehand.

More importantly, however, many of the statements attributed to Sabaditsch-Wolff were actually her quoting directly from the Koran and other Islamic religious texts. Fearing that the trial would end in a mistrial, the judge abruptly suspended hearings until January 18, ostensibly to give the judge time to review the tape recordings, but also to give the prosecution more time to shore up its case.

In more ways than one, the case (or show trial, as many are calling it) in Vienna against Sabaditsch-Wolff is similar to the one in Holland involving Geert Wilders.

Viewed broadly, both trials represent landmark cases that likely will establish the limits of free speech in countries where the politically correct elite routinely seek to silence public discussion about the escalating problem of Muslim immigration.

Viewed more narrowly, the accusers of both Sabaditsch-Wolff and Wilders are resorting to extra-legal shenanigans to make their charges stick.

For example, the trial against Wilders, who faces five charges of inciting racial and religious hatred for criticizing Islam, was abruptly ended in October 2010 after it emerged that one of the judges presiding over the trial tried to influence an expert witness to testify against Wilders. In that case, a hastily convened judicial panel agreed with Wilders that the judges were biased against him and ordered a retrial, sending the closely-watched case back to square one before an entirely new panel of judges. Wilders, who called the trial a farce, a disgrace and an assault on free speech, welcomed the decision, saying: “This gives me a new chance with a new fair trial.”

In the trial against Sabaditsch-Wolff, her accusers are basing their case on out-of-context quotes from an article in a socialist magazine. The main difference in the two cases is that Wilders is a professional politician while Sabaditsch-Wolff is a private citizen, a housewife who lacks the resources to defend herself against the deep pockets of the state that wants to silence her.

Of course, Sabaditsch-Wolff is not the only Austrian to run afoul of the country’s anti-free speech laws. In January 2009, Susanne Winter, an Austrian politician and Member of Parliament, was convicted for the “crime” of saying that “in today’s system” the Prophet Muhammad would be considered a “child molester,” referring to his marriage at the age of 56 to a six-year-old child. She was also convicted for “incitement” for warning that Austria faces an “Islamic immigration tsunami.” Winters was ordered to pay a fine of €24,000 ($31,000) and received a suspended three-month prison sentence.

Elsewhere in Europe, in Italy the late Oriana Fallaci, a journalist and author, was taken to court for writing that Islam “brings hate instead of love and slavery instead of freedom.” She died in September 2006, two months after the start of her trial. In France, novelist Michel Houellebecq was taken to court for calling Islam “the stupidest religion.” He was acquitted in October 2002. Also in France, a Paris court in June 2008 convicted animal rights activist Brigitte Bardot for “inciting racial hatred” for demanding that Muslims anaesthetize animals before slaughtering them.

In Britain, the Racial and Religious Hatred Act creates a new crime of intentionally stirring up religious hatred against people on religious grounds. The new law effectively establishes new limits on free speech in the country that in 1215 produced the Magna Carta, the famous document that is the foundation of British liberty and partly inspired the Constitution of the United States.

In Europe as a whole, the European Union recently issued a new law known as the “Framework Decision on Combating Racism and Xenophobia.” The edict requires the punishment of “certain forms and expressions of racism and xenophobia by means of criminal law.”

More specifically, the text establishes that the following conduct is punishable in all 27 member states of the European Union: “Publicly inciting to violence or hatred, even by dissemination or distribution of tracts, pictures or other material, directed against a group of persons or a member of such a group defined by reference to race, colour, religion, descent or national or ethnic origin.”

Free speech advocates worry that the vague and all-encompassing language of the new law will be used to silence critics of Islam in a Europe that lacks American-like First Amendment protections of free speech. In fact, another EU law called the “Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union” (see paragraph 52, subsection 1) actually gives non-elected bureaucrats in Brussels the right to prosecute European citizens for expressing the “wrong” opinions if it is in the interests of the European Union to do so.

Back in Vienna, Sabaditsch-Wolff says her case is not really about her or the law, but rather it is a political trial intended to silence anyone who speaks out against Islam. In a recent speech to the International Free Press Society (transcript here), she said: “Freedom of speech is under attack today all across Europe. Today, in 21st century Western Europe, our right to free speech is being shut down quietly and systematically with an effectiveness that the commissars in the old Soviet Union could only dream of.”

Sabaditsch-Wolff also says “We’re going to reply to the charges and we will do that in full detail. It remains to be seen whether the truth is a defense. I don’t think it will be.”

Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter.

Originally published by Pajamas Media on January 21, 2011.

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