A Dutch court acquitted right-wing politician Geert Wilders of hate speech and discrimination Thursday, ruling that his anti-Islam statements, while offensive to many Muslims, fell within the bounds of legitimate political debate.   

Judge Marcel van Oosten said Wilders's claims that Islam is violent by nature, and his calls to halt Muslim immigration and ban the Muslim holy book, the Qur'an, must be seen in a wider context of debate over immigration policy.   

The Amsterdam court said his public statement could not be directly linked to increased discrimination against Dutch Muslims.   

Wilders sat stone-faced while the judge read the ruling, but smiled broadly and shook hands with his lawyers after the verdict was announced. He waved to cheering supporters who hugged each other in the public gallery, and grinned as he left the courtroom.  

Wilders, one of the most powerful and popular politicians in the Netherlands, was accused of inciting hatred and discrimination against Muslims through numerous public statements, and with insulting them by comparing Islam with the Nazi movement.   

"I'm incredibly happy with this acquittal on all counts," Wilders said outside the courtroom.    "It's not only an acquittal for me, but a victory for freedom of expression in the Netherlands. Fortunately you're allowed to discuss Islam in public debate and you're not muzzled in public debate. An enormous burden has fallen from my shoulders," he said.

Appeal to UN commission considered

Groups that filed the complaints against Wilders that ultimately led to his prosecution said they were disappointed with the ruling. 

Lawyer Ties Prakken, who represented some complainants, was quoted by local media as saying Dutch courts are failing to protect a religious minority from discrimination. With legal avenues in the Netherlands exhausted, she said she's preparing an appeal to the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva.

The court found that Wilders's rhetoric was "on the edge of what is legally permissible" but not illegal.   

The judge described statements about a "tsunami" of immigrants as "crude and denigrating," but legally legitimate given wider context and his acknowledgment that those who integrate are acceptable and do not call for violence.   

In speeches, written articles and a short film that incited riots around the Muslim world, Wilder said Islam is an inherently violent religion, and he compared the Qur'an with Mein Kampf, Hitler's tirade against Jews — an especially touchy image because of the large number of Dutch Jews handed over to the Nazis in the Second World War.

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

"Given the film in its whole and the context of societal debate, the court finds that there is no question of inciting hate with the film Fitna," the judgment said. 

Wilders argued that his statements represent the views of millions of Dutch voters, that they are protected by freedom of speech law, and that the court is biased against him, while the charges are politically motivated.   

Even the prosecutors called for his acquittal, saying that his remarks may be offensive, but they are part of legitimate political debate. Despite their reluctance, the judges ruled last year that the case should be put to a judicial test and Wilders should be prosecuted.