Dutch populist politician Geert Wilders was acquitted of inciting hatred of Muslims in a court ruling on Thursday that may strengthen his political influence and exacerbate tensions over immigration policy.
The case was seen by some as a test of free speech in a country which has a long tradition of tolerance and blunt talk, but where opposition to immigration, particularly from Muslim or predominantly Muslim countries, is on the rise.
His Freedom Party is now the third-largest in parliament, a measure of support for its anti-immigrant stance, and is the minority government’s chief ally. But many of Wilders’ comments–such as likening Islam to Nazism–are socially divisive.
The presiding judge said Wilders’s remarks were sometimes “hurtful,” “shocking” or “offensive,” but that they were made in the context of a public debate about Muslim integration and multi-culturalism, and therefore not a criminal act.
“I am extremely pleased and happy,” Wilders told reporters after the ruling. “This is not so much a win for myself, but a victory for freedom of speech. Fortunately you can criticize Islam and not be gagged in public debate.”
“The acquittal means that the right of minorities to remain free of hate speech has been breached. We are going to claim our rights at the U.N.,” said Mohamed Rabbae of the National Council for Moroccans.
Wilders, who has received numerous death threats and has to live under 24-hour guard, argued that he was exercising his right to freedom of speech when criticizing Islam.