The founder of Germany's far-right anti-Islam group Pegida went on trial on Tuesday accused of inciting racial hatred.
The charges against Lutz Bachmann, 43, relate to Facebook posts in which he called refugees "cattle," "filth," and "scumbags." A court said his comments amounted to an attack on the dignity of refugees and a disruption of public order.
Pegida has risen rapidly in popularity in Germany since it was founded in October 2014, with rallies initially attended by a few hundred supporters swelling to attract thousands as President Angela Merkel's open-door policy to Syrian refugees sparked a polarized response from citizens. Far-right political parties have also been making electoral gains, and there were 1,005 attacks on refugee homes in 2015, five times more than in 2014, reported the BBC.
A mass sexual assault in the city of Cologne on New Year's Eve was also blamed on asylum seekers, though none has yet stood trial on such an offense.
Pegida, whose name is an acronym for "Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West," lost some supporters after a photo of Bachmann posing as Hitler went viral on social media in February 2015, but it regained support following the terrorist attacks in Paris in November.
Far-right groups across Europe have used those attacks and the subsequent bombings in Belgium to stoke fears that refugees arriving in Europe are in fact would-be terrorists. Pegida itself has spread to various other European countries since its inception.
Bachmann already has a significant criminal record, having served jail time for theft — after initially fleeing to South Africa — and also been found guilty of dealing drugs, drunk driving, and failure to pay child support, reported Deutsche Welle.
He arrived at court with his girlfriend amid tight security wearing large rectangular dark glasses that mimicked the way media conceal people's identities by blacking out their eyes in pixelated photos — apparently mocking Germany's censorship rules, said the BBC.
Supporters cheered and held banners reading "Against religious fanaticism and any kind of radicalism," "We are the people!" and "Shame on you! Acquit Bachmann."
Bachmann denies being a racist. If convicted he faces between three months and five years in jail.
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