A Dutch appeals court has cleared far-right political leader, Geert Wilders, of inciting hatred or discrimination against the country's Moroccan community in comments that caused a storm of controversy during elections six years ago – and sparked a heated debate about free speech.
Overturning the verdict of a lower court in 2016, the three appeals judges found Mr Wilders guilty of a lesser charge of “insulting” Moroccans as a group, but did not impose a penalty – and rejected a prosecution request for a €5,000 fine, with a prison term if left unpaid.
Instead, the judges said that politicians should be entitled to make statements that could be regarded as shocking or upsetting, and Mr Wilders – who lives under 24-hour armed guard due to death threats – had “already paid a high price for years for expressing his opinions.”
However, the judgment, delivered at the Schiphol high-security judicial complex on Friday afternoon, warned the Freedom Party leader, who was in court with his lawyer, Geert-Jan Knoops, that "politicians also have special responsibilities and freedom of speech has limits".
Emerging from the court, Mr Wilders, who will see the ruling as at least a partial victory, once again repeated his contention that the trials had been “a political process” which cast doubt on the constitutional integrity of the country, rather than a legitimate legal process.
‘Speak the truth’
He told reporters: “I will always go ahead and speak the truth, including the truth about Moroccans in this country. Nothing and nobody will stop me”.
In a clear reference to the general election not much more than six months away on March 17th, and a jibe at prime minister Mark Rutte, he added: "To my political opponents, including Rutte and his Liberals, I say: Don't cheer too soon. This only makes me stronger."
Although Mr Wilders’s Freedom Party has the second-largest number of seats in the Dutch parliament after Mr Rutte’s Liberals, it is not part of the four-party coalition government – because of its hardline anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-EU stance.
The "Moroccans case" goes back to comments by Mr Wilders at a rally before the European elections in 2014. He asked the crowd if they wanted to see more or fewer Moroccans in the Netherlands.
When they began to chant “fewer, fewer”, he replied, smiling: “We’ll have to arrange that . . . ”
The chanting and the exchange were caught on camera, and within days more than 6,400 complaints were lodged with police after they were broadcast on television and went viral on social media.
The appeals judges agreed on Friday with the lower court that Mr Wilders had planned the remarks ahead of the rally – knowing they would be inflammatory to the 400,000 people of Moroccan ancestry living in the Netherlands.