Free Speech 'Martyr' Found Guilty of Discrimination, Not HateBy
Judge says verdict is ‘punishment enough’ for populist leader
Wilders, leading in election polls, calls ruling ‘shameful’
Geert Wilders, the Dutch Freedom Party leader who’s targeting an election win next year amid the tide of populism sweeping Europe, was found guilty of inciting discrimination with comments about Moroccan immigrants, but the judges in the case imposed no penalty.
“The guilty verdict was punishment enough,” the presiding judge, Hendrik Steenhuis, said as he passed sentence in the courtroom near Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport amid tight security on Friday. Wilders, who was also found guilty of using offensive language about Moroccans as a group but cleared of inciting hatred, was not present in court.
“With his comments, Wilders contributed to a further polarization of Dutch society,” Steenhuis said. Wilders, whose party is known as the PVV in Dutch, responded via social media and posted a video online, saying: “I was convicted in a political trial, which shortly before the elections attempts to neutralize the leader of the largest and most popular opposition party.” He said that “this conviction only makes me stronger,” announcing he will appeal “this shameful sentence.”
Friday’s events provide a possible boost to Wilders in his bid to make the Freedom Party the largest in the Dutch parliament in the March 2017 elections. All recent polls suggest the party is set to win most seats ahead of Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s Liberals. Wilders, who has gained support on a program of opposition to Islam and the European Union, is pledging to emulate the U.K. and take the Netherlands out of the bloc while shutting the country’s borders to Muslim immigrants if he gains power.
”This is a goldmine for Wilders: He can present himself as the martyr of free speech,” Wim Voermans, a professor of constitutional and administrative law at Leiden University, said by phone.
While Wilders will definitely make a bigger impression on Dutch politics, he won’t become the next prime minister, Voermans said. With Wilders unable to muster a majority for the Freedom Party in the 150-member Dutch parliament under a system that sees a multiplicity of parties winning seats, he would need to find partners to work together to form a government.
“All other parties, including Rutte’s Liberals, can now, even more categorically, say: ‘We will not do business with this man, because he has been convicted,’” Voermans said.
Rutte declined to react directly to the verdict on Friday, telling his weekly news conference in The Hague that “every comment could be used in the appeal.” But the premier repeated his pledge not to form a coalition with the Freedom Party after the elections unless Wilders retracts his comments.
The public prosecutor’s office expressed satisfaction with the court’s guilty verdict, saying that a conviction is more important than the penalty imposed, according to national press agency ANP. The prosecution, which has not decided whether to appeal, had asked the judges to impose a fine of 5,000 euros ($5,300) on Wilders.
The Freedom Party leader was convicted for comments he made during an election speech in March 2014 in The Hague. He asked people attending a Freedom Party rally if they wanted “more or fewer Moroccans” in the Netherlands. When the crowd responded by chanting “fewer, fewer, fewer,’’ Wilders replied that he would “take care of that.” More than 6,400 complaints about the remarks were filed to the public prosecutor’s office.
The elections to the Dutch lower house present one of the next big opportunities for populists to shake up the political establishment after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union in June and the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president a month ago.