— AMSTERDAM, Netherlands - A Dutch court acquitted right-wing politician Geert Wilders of hate speech and discrimination Thursday, ruling that his anti-Islam statements — while offensive to many Muslims — fell within the bounds of legitimate political debate.
Presiding judge Marcel van Oosten said Wilders' claims that Islam is violent by nature, and his calls to halt Muslim immigration and ban the Muslim holy book, the Quran, must be seen in a wider context of debate over immigration policy.
The court said his public statement could not be directly linked to increased discrimination against Dutch Muslims.
He looked unmoved as the verdict was read, but his supporters in the public gallery hugged one another and clapped after the acquittal.
Wilders, one of the most powerful and popular politicians in the Netherlands, was accused of inciting hatred and discrimination against Muslims through numerous public statements, and with insulting them by comparing Islam with Naziism.
"I'm incredibly happy with this acquittal on all counts," Wilders said outside the courtroom.
"It's not only an acquittal for me, but a victory for freedom of expression in the Netherlands. Fortunately you're allowed to discuss Islam in public debate and you're not muzzled in public debate. An enormous burden has fallen from my shoulders," he said.
The court found that Wilders' rhetoric was "on the edge of what is legally permissible" but not illegal.
The judge described statements about a "tsunami" of immigrants as "crude and denigrating," but legally legitimate given wider context and his acknowledgment that those who integrate are acceptable and do not call for violence.
In speeches, written articles and a short film that incited riots around the Muslim world, Wilder said Islam is an inherently violent religion, and he compared the Quran with "Mein Kampf," Hitler's tirade against Jews — an especially touchy image because of the large number of Dutch Jews handed over to the Nazis in World War II.
Wilders argued that his statements represent the views of millions of Dutch voters, that they are protected by freedom of speech law, and that the court is biased against him, while the charges are politically motivated.
Even the prosecutors called for his acquittal, saying that his remarks may be offensive, but they are part of legitimate political debate.
Despite their reluctance, the judges ruled last year that the case should be put to a judicial test and Wilders should be prosecuted.