A court in Amsterdam has acquitted Geert Wilders -- the leader of the Dutch Freedom Party who had denounced the threat to Western values posed by unassimilated Muslim immigrants -- of charges of inciting religious hatred against Muslims for comments he made that were critical of Islam.

The landmark verdict, which brings to a close a highly-public, two-year legal odyssey (here, here, here and here), marks a major victory for free speech in a country (and continent) where the politically correct elite routinely seek to silence public discussion about the escalating problem of Muslim immigration.

Wilders, who accused the court of bias against him and said the charges were politically motivated, was acquitted of all five counts of inciting racial and religious hatred against Muslims for remarks in which he equated Islam with fascism, and others in which he called for a ban on the Koran and a tax on Muslim headscarves.

The charges against Wilders arose in part from a hard-hitting short film called "Fitna" (an Arabic word with connotations of upheaval or chaos) which he produced in 2008. The 17-minute documentary -- which argues that the Koran incites its followers to carry out acts of violence and terrorism -- prompted sundry leftist and Islamic groups to file more than 60 complaints with the Dutch police.

Amsterdam District Court Judge Marcel van Oosten ruled on June 23 that Wilders' anti-Islam statements, while offensive to many Muslims, fell within the bounds of legitimate political debate and were protected by free speech laws.

Judge van Oosten read the judgement: "You are being acquitted on all the charges that were put against you. You have spoken in a hurtful and also shocking way. Even so, the court finds, in the broadest context, that you have the right to propagate the message of such a film [Fitna]. 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."

Van Oosten also said that while Wilders' views on Islam and warnings about a "tsunami" of Muslim immigrants may be "crude" and "denigrating," they do not amount to inciting hatred and must be seen in a wider context of debate over immigration policy and multiculturalism.

The court found that Wilders was "at the edge of what is legally permissible" when he described the threat that Islam poses to Dutch culture as "a fight going on and we must arm ourselves." Van Oosten also said that "this has an inciting character," but Wilders had not crossed the line because he added that he has no objections to Muslims who integrate and accept Dutch values.

After the verdict was read, Wilders smiled broadly and shook hands with his lawyers. "I am delighted with this ruling," Wilders said. "It is a victory, not only for me, but for all the Dutch people. Today is a victory for freedom of speech in the Netherlands. The Dutch are still allowed to discuss Islam in public debate, and resistance against Islamisation is not a crime. I have spoken, I speak and I shall continue to speak."

The court's decision was somewhat of a surprise, considering the unmitigated zeal with which the presiding judges pursued the case against Wilders. (Dutch public prosecutors initially refused to bring charges against Wilders, but were overruled by a judicial elite obsessively determined to silence him.)

More than likely, however, the judges concluded that any conviction of Wilders would have placed the court firmly on the wrong side of Dutch public opinion: More than 60 percent of Dutch voters said they wanted to see Wilders acquitted.

Polls also show that Wilders' views on Islam -- and his belief that the 1.2 million Muslim immigrants in Holland are eroding Dutch culture -- resonate with millions of Dutch voters and are now part of the mainstream across the Netherlands.

According to a Maurice de Hond poll published by the center-right newspaper Trouw on June 19, 74 percent of Dutch voters say Muslim immigrants should conform to Dutch values and 83 percent support an upcoming ban on Islamic burqas in public spaces.

Wilders' Freedom Party is now the third-largest in parliament and holds the balance of power in the Dutch government. His authority was demonstrated on June 16, when Dutch Interior Minister Piet Hein Donner announced that the government would abandon the long-standing model of multiculturalism, which has encouraged Muslim immigrants to create a parallel society within the Netherlands.

The new integration policy, produced under heavy pressure from Wilders, will place more demands on immigrants, who will be required to learn the Dutch language and who could face deportation if they ignore Dutch values or disobey Dutch law.

As the result of his acquittal, Wilders -- who is already one of the most popular and powerful politicians in the Netherlands -- will see his political influence strengthened, both inside and outside the country.

Now that the right to question Muslim immigration has been essentially guaranteed by Dutch law, hitherto reluctant voters will be emboldened to more openly support Wilders and his conviction that Muslim immigrants to the West cannot, and should not, be allowed to change the democratic principles of the countries and societies that host them.

The verdict is also an important first step toward promoting free speech in other parts of Europe. Citizens in many European countries lack an American-like First Amendment, which means they can be punished for expressing the "wrong" opinions. Up until now, European elites have been quick to use hate-crime legislation to silence people with opinions that do not conform to official state policies. The Dutch precedent will almost certainly encourage free speech activists in other parts of the European Union.

Not surprisingly, Muslim groups in the Netherlands are angry about the ruling, saying they will take the battle to another venue. The Moroccan-Dutch organization Samenwerkingsverband van Marokkaanse Nederlanders warns: "We will go to the United Nations Committee for Human Rights in Geneva. The suit will be directed against the government of the Netherlands for not protecting ethnic minorities against racism and discrimination." It is also possible that the plaintiffs will continue their campaign to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Nor will Wilders' acquittal change the fact that he continues to live under round-the-clock security because of death threats from violent Islamic extremists. For the moment, however, Wilders' victory has undeniably widened the boundaries of free speech in Europe, which is some of the best news to come out of the Old Continent in a very long time.

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