AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – Dutch politician Geert Wilders was acquitted by an appeals court on Friday of discrimination, in a partial legal victory for the far-right populist who leads the opposition in parliament and who is known for his anti-Islam rhetoric.
The panel agreed with a lower court ruling from 2016 that dismissed the separate offense of inciting hatred and rejected a prosecution request that Wilders pay a fine of 5,000 euros ($5,900). However, it upheld his conviction for intentionally insulting Moroccans as a group.
Wilders is one of Europe’s most prominent far-right leaders and is polling in second place ahead of March elections. He has been a key figure in shaping the immigration debate in the Netherlands over the past decade, although he has never been in government.
Wilders, who has lived under constant police protection for more than a decade due to death threats, has “already paid a high price for years for expressing his opinion”, the presiding judge said.
“The court cleared Wilders of ‘incitement to hatred or discrimination’ because Wilders’ intent was not aimed at encouraging his audience to do so,” the judges found.
Wilders, 56, said he would appeal the charge of ‘insulting a group’ for which he was convicted. “Of course we will appeal and we will go to the Supreme Court because the verdict and the guilty sentence are ridiculous.”
“I’m very happy on the other hand that I was found innocent when it comes to charges of incitement of discrimination and hatred,“ he told journalists at the court.
The trial of Wilders has been seen as pitting free speech rights against the right of ethnic and religious minorities not to suffer verbal abuse and discrimination.
Wilders, whose Freedom Party has at times topped national opinion polls, had argued he did nothing wrong, and merely expressed openly what many Dutch people think.
He was convicted in 2016 of inciting discrimination at a campaign rally two years earlier, when he led supporters in asking whether they wanted more or fewer Moroccans in the country.
“Fewer! Fewer! Fewer!” his supporters chanted. “We’re going to take care of that,” Wilders said, smiling.
WENT ‘TOO FAR’
The judges in both the first trial and the appeal said Wilders had planned the remarks ahead of time, knowing they would be inflammatory and insulting to the 400,000 people of Moroccan heritage in the Netherlands.
Presiding Judge Jan Maarten Reinking said on Friday that respect for all social groups, especially minorities, must be defended.
“Although offensive statements are protected to a certain extent by the right to freedom of expression, in this case the suspect has gone too far and is thus guilty of a criminal offense,” he said.
Wilders was among the first of a wave of anti-immigration populists in Europe, and has frequently shocked the Dutch political establishment and offended Muslims.
He was acquitted in a 2011 hate speech trial for remarks likening Islam to Nazism and calling for a ban on the Koran.
(Additional reporting by Anthony Deutsch; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Frances Kerry)