Conspiracy theorist Willem Engel faces possible community service, suspended prison term
The Public Prosecution Service (OM) recommended judges convict conspiracy theorist Willem Engel on charges of sedition, and sentence him to 180 hours of community service, and a three-month suspended prison sentence. Engel sat in the Rotterdam courtroom on Monday and listened to the sentence recommendation with astonishment. His lawyer called the demand disproportionate.
Almost a year ago, 22,581 people collective signed a declaration calling for criminal charges against the Engel, the chair of Covid-19 conspiracy group Viruswaarheid, which means “Virus Truth” in English. The OM is prosecuting the 45-year-old from Rotterdam for a series of inflammatory coronavirus-related statements published on social media. "The suspect pushes the boundaries, rubs up against them and, in the view of the Public Prosecution Service, crosses them," said the prosecutor during the hearing.
Engel had more than 10,000 followers on Twitter and Facebook during the coronavirus pandemic. With his messages he urged his followers to commit criminal offenses or consciously accepted the prospect they would do so, according to the prosecutor.
Engel called on his followers on Twitter to photograph employees of mobile vaccination units, and to call a nursing home that was closed to visitors because of a coronavirus outbreak. Engel did not distance himself from his statements.
Also in June 2020, Viruswaarheid, using Engel’s account, called on people to show love and support by attending a protest on the Malieveld in The Hague that had been banned. "The suspect appealed for a criminal offense by calling for the demonstration, while the demonstration was prohibited," said the prosecutor. More than four hundred people were arrested on 21 June 2020, after violent clashes with authorities.
The prosecutor said that Engel's inflammatory messages also do not contribute to the public debate. "Freedom of speech has limits. Freedom of speech ends where sedition begins."
"I am really surprised that I have to defend myself against this," said Willem Engel in court on Monday. "It's obviously not sedition, it's a political matter." The chair of Viruswaarheid said he has carefully weighed his messages on social media. "I excel at that. That's why it's so special that I'm here."
Engel was arrested at a polling station in Rotterdam on Wednesday, 16 March, on the day of the municipal elections, for inciting people using social media. He was held in custody for two weeks and shortly after his release from pre-trial custody he gave an interview that appeared on YouTube in violation of his conditional release. As a result, he was detained and returned to a police cell for a few more days.
Reporting by ANP