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Dutch Court Acquits Anti-Islam Lawmaker

Right-wing politician Geert Wilders appears in court in Amsterdam, June 23, 2011

Dutch far-right member of parliament Geert Wilders was acquitted of all charges in his hate speech trial in Amsterdam. Judges found the populist politician’s comments against Islam may be offensive to many, but that they fall within the scope of protected free speech.

Supporters of Geert Wilders erupted into applause in the public gallery as the presiding judge acquitted the populist politician of all charges of hate speech and discrimination against Muslims.

Judges called some of Wilders’ comments crude and denigrating - but not illegal. Although they found Wilders’ warning about a “tsunami” of immigrants to be at the limit of what is permissible, they said he stayed within the bounds of the law - especially because his remarks were made during the Netherlands' heated political debates on multi-culturalism.

For his part, Wilders said he is happy with the verdict and will continue to speak out against what he calls the threat of Islam.

"Now the good news is, it's also legal to be critical about Islam, to speak publicly in a critical way about Islam, and this something that we need because the Islamization of our societies is a major problem and a threat to our freedom and I’m allowed to say so," he said.

Wilders is an enormously popular politician in the Netherlands, and the support of his PVV party is crucial to the current government, which is adopting many of his anti-immigrant positions.

John Tyler is the political editor at Radio Netherlands. He says that while Thursday’s verdict may not increase Wilders’ political clout, it could make him even more popular with voters. And legally, says Tyler, the decision is huge.

"The acquittal of Geert Wilders has big implications for free speech in the Netherlands. This is a precedent-setting case that now allows people to feel like they can say more than they felt they can say before, certainly it gives Geert Wilders that freedom," he said.

With Thursday’s acquittal, it appears that Wilders' once-radical words are now more mainstream in a country that for decades was viewed as one of the most liberal and tolerant in the world. That’s little comfort to Dutch Moroccan Zenap Al-Garboni and her 11-year-old daughter, Amra.

Zenap: "I’m not happy because I’m a Muslim too and he’s from politics and in the media and television. He should not create hate and that’s what he’s doing. He’s creating hate against Islam and that’s why I’m against it and I’m very disappointed he’s not accused."

Amra: "It really scares me actually, for all the children it’s really scary to see and I think it shouldn’t actually be like that."

While the immigration debate is far from over in the Netherlands, the legal process against Wilders is at an end here. But a lawyer for many of the Muslim plaintiffs say they will take their case beyond Dutch borders to the U.N. Human Rights Committee in Geneva.