GEERT Wilders, the outspoken Dutch MP who branded Islam a violent religion and called the Koran a fascist book, has been acquitted of all charges of hate speech and discrimination at a trial seen as testing the boundaries of freedom of expression.
Mr Wilders, 47, faced five charges and a possible year-long jail sentence over his anti-Islamic rhetoric and his film Fitna, meaning “discord”, which juxtaposed the Koran with images of atrocities such as the 9/11 attacks.
The politician was banned from Britain in February 2009 on the grounds that he would “threaten community harmony and therefore public security” but travelled to London later that year after overturning the restriction.
Mr Wilders said that he was “incredibly happy” after the verdict was read out in an Amsterdam court.
“It is not only an acquittal for me, but a victory for freedom of expression in the Netherlands,” he said. “Fortunately, you are allowed to discuss Islam in public debate and you are not muzzled in public debate. An enormous burden has fallen from my shoulders. It means it is legal to criticise Islam.”
The prosecution had to be forced to bring the case against Mr Wilders by the Dutch Court of Appeal after a legal case brought by Dutch rights groups. At the end of his trial, prosecutors again called for the charges to be dropped, saying that although his comments may have caused anxiety and insult, they were not criminal, as they criticised Islam as a religion and not Muslims as a people.
“The bench finds that your statements are acceptable within the context of the public debate,” said Judge Marcel van Oosten. “The bench finds that although gross and denigrating, it did not give rise to hatred.”
The case was suspended during last year’s election, during which Mr Wilders’s Party for Freedom came third and now supports the minority government in Parliament.
Judge van Oosten described statements about a “tsunami” of immigrants as “crude and denigrating”, but legally legitimate given the wider context and Mr Wilders’s acknowledgement that those who integrated were acceptable and did not call for violence. Bram Moszkowicz, the lawyer for Mr Wilders, said: “A politician, in the context of public debate, can say a little more and go a bit farther than you and I.”
Mr Wilders said: “It is my strong conviction that Islam is a threat to Western values, to freedom of speech, to the equality of men and women, of heterosexuals and homosexuals, of believers and unbelievers.”
Els Lucas, a lawyer for the collection of Dutch rights groups, said that they planned to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights or the UN’s Human Rights Committee.