Dutch populist leader Geert Wilders was convicted Friday of inciting discrimination and insulting a group during a speech in 2009, when he said that the Netherlands would be safer with fewer Moroccans.
Mr. Wilders, the controversial leader of the far-right Party for Freedom, has been known for his anti-Islam stance and incendiary remarks against Muslims, minority groups, and immigrants in the Netherlands. In 2011, he was acquitted of a similar charge over anti-Islamic statements.
But Wilders’ party has been gaining in the polls in recent years, emboldened by the rise of anti-establishment, far-right parties in Europe that campaign on similar messages. Donald Trump’s presidential victory in the United States also added a boost to the movements. While Europe has stricter laws regulating hate speech and discrimination, some question whether it is enough to curb the influence of politicians who deliver inflammatory statements that target specific groups of people.
The judges emphasized during the trial that charging Wilders is not an affront to freedom of speech.
"Freedom of speech is one of the foundations of our democratic society," a ruling judge said on Friday, according to the Associated Press. "Freedom of speech can be limited, for example to protect the rights and freedoms of others, and that is what this case is about."
Gilders was found not guilty of a separate hate speech charge regarding comments he made about Moroccans in a TV program. He was convicted, however, for a speech he made in a political rally when he asked a crowd "Do you want more or fewer Moroccans in your city and in the Netherlands," as reported by BBC, to which the crowd chanted "Fewer! Fewer!"
Wilders replied: "We're going to take care of that."
It’s not the first trial he has had regarding similar charges, which have gained Wilders considerable media attention. In the meantime, his party has been rising in the polls as the country prepares to head for an election in three months.
Wilders refused to attend an October hearing, claiming that the proceedings were a "political trial" that sought to undermine his freedom of speech. In 2010, he was also on trial for comparing Islam's holy book, the Quran, to Adolf Hitler's "Mein Kampf."
"He is trying to turn the court into a podium for his political activities," Rudy Andeweg, a professor of Dutch politics at Leiden University, told The Christian Science Monitor in 2010. "He enjoys the attention. He wants a political trial but judges won't have that."
"Three PVV [Party for Freedom] hating judges declare that Moroccans are a race and convict me and half of the Netherlands," Wilders Tweeted after Friday’s verdict. "Madness."
There will be no penalties or fines to go with the conviction. The presiding judges said that the conviction is enough, and that Wilders, as the leader of a political party, "had a duty not to polarize society," the BBC wrote.
Yet his incendiary message against Muslims and immigrants, the target of blame for some politicians as Europe tries to deal with an influx of refugees, scattered terrorist attacks, and economic troubles, might have struck a chord with disillusioned voters.
"Muslims have a completely different view on society, gender, sexuality, different values. In some cities whites are a minority now. People don't feel at home. They feel unsafe," a Wilders supporter told the BBC, although he also admits he doesn't know any Muslims and mostly gets what he knows from opinion pieces published on the internet.
Wilders' trial, some observers say, is stoking support among those who applaud his courage for speaking out when others don’t.
"A lot of people mentioned that they’re really getting angry that he is being accused and judged only for what he said," Peter Kanne, a Dutch pollster with I&O Research, told The New York Times. "They think that he said something that is true, and they're very angry that a politician cannot say that in a society where there is freedom of speech."
Europe's strict laws regulating hate speech and discrimination stems from its history during World War II, when racial and religious hatred fanned deadly atrocities in the region.