Netherlands Islam: Wilders verdict stirs up debate

Geert Wilders leaves court in Amsterdam, 23 June Geert Wilders was acquitted of all charges

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Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders has been acquitted of all charges in his hate speech trial in Amsterdam.

Judges found that the populist politician's comments comparing Islam to Nazism might be offensive, but they fell within the scope of protected speech.

"This is a precedent-setting case that now allows people to feel like they can say more than they felt they could say before," said John Tyler, political editor at Radio Netherlands.

"The acquittal of Geert Wilders has big implications for free speech in the Netherlands."

Supporters of Geert Wilders erupted into applause when the verdict was read out.

In a mere 20 minutes, judges dismissed all charges of inciting hatred and discrimination against Muslims.

Judges called some of Mr Wilders's comments "crude and denigrating", but not illegal.

Although they found his warning of a "tsunami" of immigrants to be on the border of what is permissible, they said he had stayed within the bounds of the law, especially because his remarks were made during the country's heated political debates on multi-culturalism.

'Free to criticise'

For his part, Mr Wilders said he was happy with the verdict and would continue to speak out against what he called the threat of Islam.

"The good news is it's legal to be critical about Islam," he told reporters in the courthouse lobby following his acquittal.

"And this is something that we need, because the Islamisation of our societies is a major problem and a threat to our freedom. And I'm allowed to say so."

With Thursday's acquittal, it appears that Mr Wilders's radical words are now more mainstream in a country that for decades was viewed as one of the most liberal and tolerant in the world.

Mr Wilders is an enormously popular politician, his Freedom Party the third largest in parliament, and many analysts say Thursday's acquittal will only boost his popularity in the immigrant-wary Dutch mainstream.

Although not a formal partner in the ruling conservative coalition, Mr Wilders's support is crucial in giving it a voting majority.

In turn, the government is supporting many of his anti-immigrant positions, from limiting immigration to banning face-covering attire.

'Creating hate'

"I'm very disappointed," said one Dutch Moroccan, Zenap al-Garboni, eating a bagel with her children in a restaurant near the courthouse.

"He should not create hate and that's what he's doing. He's creating hate against Islam."

Her 11-year-old daughter Amra added: "When I see it on TV it really scares me. For all the children, it's really scary to see and I think it shouldn't be like that."

For now, there is no sign of a toned down political debate in Dutch politics.

What has ended here is the legal process against Mr Wilders, which has gone as far is it can in the Dutch courts.

But a lawyer for many of the Muslim plaintiffs, Ties Prakken, says she will take their case beyond Dutch borders to the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva.

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