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Friday, June 24, 2011 - Page updated at 06:30 p.m.

Dutch lawmaker didn't incite hate in anti-Islam speech, court rules

By TOBY STERLING
The Associated Press

AMSTERDAM — The boundaries of free speech in Europe widened Thursday after a Dutch court acquitted politician Geert Wilders of inciting hatred against Muslims when he compared Islam to Nazism and called for a ban on the Quran.

Political analysts say the ruling will likely embolden Wilders and other right-wing populists across the continent to ramp up their anti-immigrant rhetoric, with remarks like Wilders' call for a "head-rag tax" within the boundaries of fair political debate.

The ruling did lay down a clear limit: Calls for violence remain out of bounds. Wilders, 47, who has lived under constant police protection because of death threats since 2004, has never called for violence or endorsed it.

Presiding Judge Marcel van Oosten said some of Wilders' comments — such as saying foreign influences are "breeding" in the Netherlands and threatening to overrun Dutch culture — may be "crude and denigrating." But he said they did not amount to inciting hatred and must be seen in a wider context of a fierce national debate over immigration and multiculturalism.

While the United States has enshrined the right to freedom of speech in its Constitution, many European nations introduced hate-speech laws in the wake of World War II, determined to prevent the scapegoating of minorities.

Van Oosten cited one of Wilders' most incendiary statements — "the core of the problem is the fascist Islam, the sick ideology of Allah and Mohammed as laid down in the Islamic 'Mein Kampf': the Quran" — saying that criticism of a religion and its followers is not illegal.

Wilders smiled broadly and shook hands with his lawyers after the verdict. Cheering supporters hugged in the public gallery, and Wilders waved and grinned as he left the courtroom.

"It's not only an acquittal for me, but a victory for freedom of expression in the Netherlands," he said afterward. "Fortunately, you're allowed to discuss Islam in public debate and you're not muzzled."

Political-science professor Andre Krouwel, of Amsterdam's Free University, said Wilders might have been convicted a decade ago, but his ideas have since entered the mainstream. Wilders' Freedom political party is the country's third-largest in Parliament, and it is propping up an all-conservative Dutch government that agrees with much of his right-wing platform.

The verdict "will further the inward-looking and to some extent xenophobic atmosphere in the Netherlands," said professor Leo Lucassen, chairman of the Social History Department at Leiden University.

The verdict came a week after the government announced plans to end programs to help integrate immigrants into Dutch society, which "fuels this idea of immigrants who are basically an alien element to the Dutch people," Lucassen said.

The government also is moving to ban Muslim face-covering clothing and to further slash immigration.

Dutch Muslims who pressed for the trial said Wilders' strident anti-Islam tone has led to increased discrimination and harassment against them, and attacks on mosques. Krouwel said seeking remedy in the courts proved an "incredible mistake" because Thursday's decision "legalized populist rhetoric."

Wilders' stances resound deeply with Dutch voters, who have reconsidered their famous tolerance amid fears their culture is being eroded by immigrants who don't share their values. About 6 percent of the Dutch population is Muslim.

Groups that filed the complaints that led to Wilders' prosecution were disappointed Thursday.

"What surprises me is that the judge says that what's permissible is determined by the context of the societal debate," said Aydin Akkaya, chairman of the Council of Turks in the Netherlands. "In other words, if you just find a 'context' you can go nuts."

Mohamed Rabbae, chairman of the moderate National Moroccan Council, said the case has gone as far as it can in the Dutch courts and the battle will switch to another venue.

"We will go to the U.N. Committee for Human Rights in Geneva. The suit will be directed against the government of the Netherlands for not protecting ethnic minorities against racism and discrimination," he said in an email.

The court paid special attention to Wilders' 2008 film, "Fitna" — Arabic for "ordeal" — a 15-minute series of verses from the Quran juxtaposed against news videos of violence and terrorism. The film prompted angry demonstrations and official protests around the Muslim world.

Despite prosecutors' initial reluctance to prosecute, the court ruled last year that it was in society's interest the case be heard.

Associated Press correspondent Arthur Max contributed to this report.

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