Dutch MP Wilders enters Britain on free-speech ruling

Dutch MP Geert Wilders, who made a controversial film about Islam, won his appeal against a British ban imposed to stop him from spreading hatred and violent messages.

By , Correspondent

An outspoken Dutch member of parliament on a "least wanted" British list of figures made a triumphant visit today after a British tribunal overturned a government decision to ban him from the country.

Geert Wilders, noted for anti-islamic rhetoric – comparing the Koran to Mein Kampf, for example – milked his propaganda coup today during appearances at Parliament, where he was a guest of the Euroskeptic United Kingdom Independence Party.

But legal experts widely regard the independent tribunal's ruling earlier in the week as a "slap on the wrist" for a clumsy attempt by the British government to gain populist points by barring figures such as Mr. Wilders, American talk-show host Michael Savage, and a hodge-podge of world extremists, including Muslim preachers, Russian neo-Nazis, and Fred Waldron Phelps, a homophobic American preacher. 

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The move was met largely with indifference by the British public.

Wilders, who has cut a distinctive public figure at home as his Far Right party has made steady political gains, was turned back from the UK in February when he attempted to attend a screening in the House of Lords of his documentary, Fitna, which links atrocities such as 9/11 to Koranic instruction.

Britain's Home Office said he had been barred to stop him spreading "hatred and violent messages."

Fear of trouble not sufficient for ban

Wilders, appealed to the UK's Asylum and Immigration Tribunal which ruled Tuesday that the politician's opinions were expressed "in a way that was bound to cause offense, but that the right of freedom of expression was important in a democratic society."

On the basis of the evidence, it said there had been no public-order problems or damage to community relations as a result of a previous visit by Wilders, discussion of his views or film, or during his travels elsewhere in Europe.

Even if there had been evidence, the judges ruled that it would still have been wrong to turn him away because the police would have been able to deal with any trouble.

Joseph Middleton, a lawyer specializing in immigration and human rights law, says there was little surprise in the British legal community at the tribunal's ruling. 

"In reality, it's a very strong slap on the wrists to the secretary of State to say 'don't seek to infringe freedom of expression in this way,' " he says.

The original decision to bar Wilders appeared to have been taken on the basis that his views were offensive, adds Mr. Middleton, who cautioned that this alone had no basis in British law.

Britain's Home Office said it stood by the original decision and pledged to monitor Wilders's behavior.

Nazir Ahmed, a Muslim member of the House of Lords who originally lobbied the British government to block Wilders from entering the UK, said he was disappointed Wilders was being allowed in at a time when the far right, anti-Muslim, British National Party was making unprecedented political gains and other extremists were had stepped up street agitation.

"This is a man whose views are very clearly anti-Muslim, and whose language is very clearly likely to influence people," he says.

Is this a victory?

So what does Wilders's victory mean for the other "'undesirables" identified by the British government?

The ruling doesn't serve as a legal precedent. And there is also a much more stringent legal test when it comes to excluding European Union (EU) citizens than others.

Nevertheless, Middleton agreed that Savage, at least, would stand a strong change of overturning his ban by going down the relatively expensive route of mounting a legal challenge in the UK. For now, Savage appears content with pursuing a defamation suit against Jacqui Smith, the British politician who presided over his inclusion on the list when she was serving in government.

Glen Newey, a British political philosopher and defender of academic free speech, points to similarities between the Wilders case and that of Tariq Ramadan, who was refused admission to the US by the Bush administration after the Swiss Muslim academic was appointed to a post at the University of Notre Dame in 2004. In that case, the US government said Mr. Ramadan had contributed to a charity that had connections to terrorism.

"In the wake of 9/11, democratic governments have been keen to assert their ability to exclude aliens they deem to be undesirable," says Mr. Newey. "In the case of Wilders, the justification was supposed to be the need to preserve community cohesion. But I think it's interesting that ... when events are pulled, it's not because [the authority] disapproves of what is being said, it's because other people strongly disapprove of it, and some public disorder will then result.

"It has the function of almost foreclosing discussion, because security is regarded as an indisputable good," he adds. "It moves any discussion away of a political level to an exceptional one, almost to a state of emergency."

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