AMSTERDAM Dutch populist politician Geert Wilders was acquitted of inciting hatred of Muslims in a court ruling on Thursday that may strengthen his political influence and exacerbate tensions over immigration policy.
The case was seen by some as a test of free speech in a country which has a long tradition of tolerance and blunt talk, but where opposition to immigration, particularly from Muslim or predominantly Muslim countries, is on the rise.
Instantly recognizable by his mane of dyed blond hair, Wilders, 47, is one of the most outspoken critics of Islam and immigration in the Netherlands.
His Freedom Party is now the third-largest in parliament, a measure of support for its anti-immigrant stance, and is the minority government's chief ally. But many of Wilders' comments -- such as likening Islam to Nazism -- are socially divisive.
The presiding judge said Wilders's remarks were sometimes "hurtful," "shocking" or "offensive," but that they were made in the context of a public debate about Muslim integration and multi-culturalism, and therefore not a criminal act.
"I am extremely pleased and happy," Wilders told reporters after the ruling. "This is not so much a win for myself, but a victory for freedom of speech. Fortunately you can criticize Islam and not be gagged in public debate."
The ruling could embolden Wilders further. He has already won concessions from the government on cutting immigration and introducing a ban on Muslim face veils and burqas.
"This means that his political views are condoned by law, his political rhetoric has been legalized," said Andre Krouwel, a political scientist at Amsterdam's Free University.
"This has made him stronger politically. He is needed for a political majority, he is basically vice prime minister without even being in the government."
Some Dutch citizens have started to question their country's traditionally generous immigration and aid policies, worried by the deteriorating economic climate, higher unemployment, incidence of ethnic crime and signs that Muslim immigrants have not fully integrated into Dutch society.
Similar concerns have helped far-right parties to gain traction elsewhere in Europe, from France to Scandinavia.
Farid Azarkan of the SMN association of Moroccans in the Netherlands said he feared the acquittal could further split Dutch society and encourage others to repeat Wilders's comments.
"You see that people feel more and more supported in saying that minorities are good for nothing," Azarkan said.
"Wilders has said very extreme things about Muslims and Moroccans, so when will it ever stop? Some will feel this as a sort of support for what they feel and as justification."
Minorities groups said they would now take the case to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, arguing the ruling meant the Netherlands had failed to protect ethnic minorities from discrimination.
"The acquittal means that the right of minorities to remain free of hate speech has been breached. We are going to claim our rights at the U.N.," said Mohamed Rabbae of the National Council for Moroccans.
Wilders, who has received numerous death threats and has to live under 24-hour guard, argued that he was exercising his right to freedom of speech when criticizing Islam.
The Amsterdam court had used a Supreme Court ruling -- that an offensive statement about someone's religion was not a criminal offence -- as the basis of its decision, leading to acquittal, the judge said.
Unusually, the prosecution team had also asked for an acquittal, arguing that politicians have the right to comment on problem issues and that Wilders was not trying to foment violence or division.
"I think it is good that he has been acquitted," said Elsbeth Kalff, an 83-year-old retired sociologist in Amsterdam.
"He has been told that he has been rude and offensive but it is on the border of what the criminal law allows. It is good, the Netherlands is, after all, a tolerant country and we should keep it that way."
(Editing by Sara Webb and Mark Trevelyan)