Dutch politician Geert Wilders has been acquitted by an Amsterdam court of all charges of inciting hatred and discrimination against Muslims.
The platinum-haired parliament deputy faced five counts of hate speech and discrimination for his anti-Islamic remarks in the media between 2006 and 2008 and in a controversial 17-minute film.
The Amsterdam regional court said on June 23 that Wilders' comments were "on the edge of what is legally permissible," but "acceptable within the context of the public debate" because they could not be directly linked to increased discrimination against Dutch Muslims.
The groups that filed the complaints against Wilders expressed disappointment with the ruling.
But outside the courtroom, the 47-year-old Wilders welcomed his acquittal as a victory for free expression.
"It's a major achievement for freedom of speech in the Netherlands and I also hope for other countries that could learn a lesson from this verdict by the Dutch court," Wilders said.
He said the court ruling meant it was legal to criticize Islam in public.
"I spoke, I speak, I will continue to speak -- now the good news is that it is also legal to be critical about Islam -- to speak publicly in a critical way about Islam," he said. "This is something that we need because the Islamization of our societies, I believe, is a major problem."
The case stemmed from Wilders' remarks in a newspaper opinion column, where he compared Islam to Nazism, and a film that he produced that sparked controversy. The film, "Fitna," encouraged Muslims to tear out pages of their holy book, the Koran. He also spoke about a "tsunami" of immigrants in the Netherlands.
Wilders had always insisted his statements were directed at Islam and not at Muslim believers.
Today's ruling marks the end of a long-running legal wrangle.
Wilders was originally charged in January 2009 and his trial began one year later. In October 2010, when the trial was nearing its conclusion, Wilders' attorney asked for the judges to be substituted because of a perceived bias against his client.
A Trial With A Twist
A new trial was ordered at the start of 2011, which concluded on June 23.
In a surprising twist, both the defense and the country's Public Prosecution Office had asked for Wilders' acquittal, saying that his remarks might be offensive, but they were not criminal as they criticized Islam as a religion and not Muslims as a people.
But an appeals court had insisted that the trial continue.
Although not part of the right-leaning coalition government, the support of Wilders' Freedom Party (PVV), the third-biggest political party in the Netherlands, keeps it in power.
Under a coalition deal, the PVV agreed to support the minority government in exchange for concessions on issues of immigration and legislation that would ban Muslim women from wearing burqas or veils over their faces in public.
The total number of Muslims living in the Netherlands is estimated at around 1 million, including some 850,000 Dutch citizens, out of a total population of over 16 million.
compiled from agency reports