AMSTERDAM • Geert Wilders, the Dutch Freedom Party leader who is targeting an election win next year amid the tide of populism sweeping Europe, was found guilty of inciting discrimination with comments he made about Moroccan immigrants, but the judges in the case imposed no penalty.
"The guilty verdict was punishment enough," said presiding judge Hendrik Steenhuis when he delivered his verdict in the courtroom near Amsterdam's Schiphol airport amid tight security yesterday.
Wilders, who was also found guilty of using offensive language about Moroccans as a group, but cleared of inciting hatred, was not present in court.
"With his comments, Wilders contributed to a further polarisation of Dutch society," Judge Steenhuis said.
Wilders, whose party is known as the PVV in Dutch, responded via Twitter, saying: "Three PVV-hating judges declare that Moroccans are a race and convict me and half of the Netherlands. Madness."
Wilders' lawyer immediately announced an appeal, Dutch national news agency ANP reported.
The verdict represents a possible boost to Wilders in his bid to make the Freedom Party the largest in the Dutch Parliament in the upcoming March elections.
All recent polls suggest the party is set to win the most seats, ahead of Prime Minister Mark Rutte's Liberals.
Wilders, who has gained support on a programme of opposition to Islam and the European Union, is pledging to emulate Britain and take the Netherlands out of the bloc and shut the country's borders to Muslim immigrants if he gains power.
During a speech in March 2014 in The Hague, Wilders asked people attending a Freedom Party rally if they wanted "more or fewer Moroccans" in the Netherlands.
When the crowd responded by chanting "fewer, fewer, fewer'' Wilders replied that he would "take care of that".
More than 6,400 complaints about the remarks were filed to the public prosecutor's office.
Wilders, who did not attend most of the proceedings but used his right to make a closing speech in his defence, called the trial a "political process'' and he said he would never be silent.
"The freedom of speech is the only freedom I still have,'' said Wilders, who is under close police protection.
The elections to the Dutch Lower House present one of the next big opportunities for populists to shake up the political establishment after Britain's vote to leave the EU in June and the election of Mr Donald Trump as United States president a month ago.