Schiphol (Netherlands) (AFP) – Populist anti-Islam Dutch MP Geert Wilders was found guilty on Friday of discrimination against Moroccans, but acquitted of hate speech in a closely-watched trial ahead of next year’s key elections.But the judges decided not to impose any sentence or fine, and Wilders immediately vowed to appeal against what he said was a bid to “neutralise” him ahead of the March polls.
“I will never be silent. You will not be able to stop me,” he vowed in a video message sent swiftly after the verdict was handed down.
Wilders, whose Freedom Party (PVV) is eyeing an upset victory in the March 2017 polls, was charged with two counts arising out of comments he made in 2014 around local elections.
– ‘Fewer Moroccans’ –
After a three-week trial which Wilders had largely snubbed, the three judges ruled “the inflammatory character of the way in which the statements were made have incited others to discriminate people of Moroccan origin.”
But they added there was “insufficient evidence” to rule that his words amounted to incitement to hatred. The judges also dismissed the prosecution’s request to impose a 5,000-euro ($5,300) fine.
“In this case, the most important question is whether Wilders has crossed a line. This judgement has answered that question,” the judges said in their verdict.
The most recent opinion polls predict the PVV will top the March vote, saying it could seize 34 spots in the 150-seat lower house of Dutch parliament, some 10 ahead of his nearest rival, Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s Liberals.
Rather than hurting the controversial lawmaker, who was also acquitted in a 2011 hate speech case, observers say his trial has boosted his popularity among Dutch voters, worried about the influx of immigrants and driven by eurosceptic sentiments.
Amid a string of populist victories in Europe and the November election of Donald Trump as the next US president, the outcome of the Dutch vote will be keenly watched.
The trial had focused in particular on a statement made at a 2014 local government election rally in The Hague, when Wilders asked supporters whether they wanted “fewer or more Moroccans in your city and in the Netherlands”.
– ‘Unworthy remarks’ –
When the crowd shouted back “Fewer! Fewer!” a smiling Wilders answered: “We’re going to organise that.”
Prosecutors said they were satisfied with the verdict.
“For us it was important that we set a norm, namely that a politician cannot discriminate against a group based on their origin. This principle and setting the norm was more important than the fine,” prosecutor Frans Zonneveld told AFP.
The police had received 6,400 complaints about Wilders’s comments.
He “singled out an entire group of citizens without making any distinction,” the judges ruled.
But after the judgement, Wilders said in a tweet: “Three PVV-hating judges declare Moroccans to be a race and convict me and half of the Netherlands. Madness.”
And in a video message, posted to YouTube, he added: “Today I was convicted in a political trial, which shortly before the elections attempts to neutralise the leader of the largest and most popular opposition party.”
Presiding judge Hendrik Steenhuis however had harsh words for the platinum-blond haired Wilders saying his disparaging comments about judges and the judiciary in The Netherlands “are unworthy of an elected politician.”
Prime Minister Mark Rutte too would not be drawn, saying only: “The Netherlands is a democratic country with an independent judiciary. Everybody is equal before the law.”
The Moroccan community however was “very relieved with the judgement”, Moroccan-born Abdou Menebhi, who attended the hearing, told AFP.
“It’s a positive and important judgement,” said Menebhi, president of the Amsterdam-based Euro Mediterranean Centre for Migration and Development, which represents Moroccan interests in the country.
If elected as the country’s new prime minister, Wilders has among other things vowed to confiscate Korans, close mosques and Islamic schools, shut Dutch borders and ban migrants from Islamic countries.
His views have seen him receive death threats including from terror groups such as the Islamic State group and Al-Qaeda. He is guarded at all times and called the “best protected man in The Netherlands”.