Geert Wilders is a free man. After a trial that has dragged on for a year and a half, he has now been acquitted of all the charges against him.
It took the chief judge just twenty minutes to summarise the court’s ruling on five charges of inciting hatred and discrimination against Muslims. The verdict was greeted with applause from Mr Wilders’ supporters in the public gallery. Mr Wilders himself stood up, grinning broadly, and patted his lawyer on the back in congratulation.
A short while later, Mr Wilders emerged to speak to a throng of more than 50 journalists, many from foreign news organisations. Mr Wilders was visibly relieved. He is a tall man, but he stood even taller as he spoke of his victory.
"I am very pleased and happy. It's not just a victory for me, but for freedom of expression in Holland .... A great burden has been lifted off me.
He concluded his remarks with the Dutch equivalent of "I’m as happy as a kid in a candy store."
Injured parties may appeal to Euroean court
The defence is happy, but so too is the prosecution. The public prosecutor will not appeal the verdict, since the prosecutors had also asked for acquittal.
Less happy are the lawyers for the individuals and organisations who took part in the trial as ‘injured parties’. But since they have no standing in this case, they cannot appeal to a Dutch higher court. They have no further legal options within the Netherlands but Ties Prakken, the senior lawyer for the injured parties, says she plans to take the case to a European court. She would not specify whether that would be the European Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg, or the UN Comission on Humanl Rights in Geneva. They could request the latter to open a process against the Dutch government for not doing enough to protecct its own citizens from hate speech.
Henri Sorelea is another lawyer representing injured parties in the Wilders trial. He is sorely disappointed with the outcome. He says the judgement will now allow ‘clever people’ to break the law.
"The court has decided that someone who can use language in a very clever way is allowed to use terms which are against the law."
He went on to give an example from the judge’s summary, in which the judge said a statement Wilders had made could on its own be considered incitement to hatred. But in the context of the rest of the article in which it appeared, it does not break the law.
Mr Sorelea fears that this will open the floodgates. Anyone can say anything, so long as they follow it up with a somewhat milder statement.
Mr Wilders, on the other hand, says he has never minced words and does not plan to start now. He feels vindicated, and hopes this ruling will set a precedent not just here in The Netherlands, but also in other countries.
"This is very important for me, and for the freedom of speech in the Netherlands and the western world…I hope it is a victory as well for other countries that could learn a lesson from this court."
The verdict will not directly affect Mr Wilders' position in the Netherlands. He supports the current minority government from his seat in parliament and enjoys a great deal of political influence. The verdict may boost his numbers in opinion polls – and will certainly boost his international standing as a successful fighter for freedom of speech.