Highway blockade trial suspended after judge faints

Kick Out Zwarte Piet blocked from protesting racism in Friesland Netherlands on Sinterklaas
The A7 highway blocked near Heerenveen by about 35 people refusing to let groups of people pass through to protest Zwarte Piet, blackface and racism at the Sinterklaas arrival in Dokkum, Friesland. 18 Nov. 2017photo: "Otto" / Kick Out Zwarte Piet

The trial against 34 people suspected of blocking the A7 highway to prevent anti-Zwarte Peit protesters from reaching the national Sinterklaas arrival celebrations in Dokkum last year, started on Monday. The case was suspended shortly after it started because one of the judges, Willem Sikkema, lost consciousness, AD reports.

The Public Prosecutor just started to explain why the 34 suspects were on trial when Sikkema fainted. There was some panic in the courtroom, but he quickly regained consciousness and was able to leave the room on his own. The trail was suspended for a time while it was determined whether Sikkema could continue. At around 11:15 a.m. a judge reported that Sikkem was feeling better and the case would continue on Monday.

The men and women are facing court this week for blocking the A7 highway near Dokkum on November 18th. They wanted to stop two busses carrying anti-Zwarte Piet protesters from reaching Dokkum. The anti-Zwarte Piet protesters had permission to demonstrate against the controversial blackface character along the route of Sinterklaas' arrival. The blockade caused a major traffic jam on the highway. It was eventually broken up by the police. The protesters' buses were supposed to go on to Dokkum, but the municipality banned the demonstration at the last minute out of fear of disturbances. The police then escorted the buses back to Amsterdam.

In court on Monday, the Public Prosecutor said that this lawsuit is not about Zwarte Piet. The 34 men and women are suspected of preventing a legal demonstration and causing a dangerous situation by blocking the highway. One is also suspected of incitement, because she put a call on social media to stop the activists. 

The suspects themselves argue that they wanted to prevent disturbances by blocking the protesters from reaching Dokkum, where thousands of people, including many children, were gathered to see Sinterklaas arrive. 

Almost all of the 34 suspects come from Friesland. On Monday the court will deal with the cases against 9 of them, in groups of three. The remaining suspects will appear in court on Tuesday and Thursday. On Thursday two activists from Kick Out Zwarte Piet, who were on the stopped buses on November 18th, will also appear in court. They are not being prosecuted for anything, but will make use of their right to say something as an aggrieved party. 

On Friday the Public Prosecutor will make its punishment demands against the suspects. Preventing a legal demonstration could carry a maximum sentence of nine months in prison. The maximum sentence for the blocking of a public highway is nine years in prison, but it seems unlikely that such high sentences will be demanded. 

A small group of sympathizers for the highway blockers gathered in front of the court on Monday morning, carrying pro-Zwarte Piet signs. This is not just about Zwarte Piet, but about the big picture, one demonstrator said to AD. "It's about our culture." Edwin Wagensveld, leader of anti-Islam movement Pegida Nederland, and Martin Bosma of populist party PVV is also at court to show their support for the suspects.