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AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Judges on Friday convicted Dutch lawmaker Geert Wilders of insulting Moroccans and inciting discrimination against them, but levied no punishment against him.
Wilders, who is leading in some polls before national parliamentary elections in March, responded immediately on Twitter, calling the verdict "totally insane" and saying the court was biased against him. He later said he plans an appeal.
The charges against Wilders stem from a 2014 campaign rally, when he led a group of supporters to chant they wanted "Fewer! Fewer! Fewer!" Moroccans in the Netherlands. A smiling Wilders concluded: "we're going to take care of that."
Reading the decision of a three-judge panel, Presiding Judge Hendrik Steenhuis said "no one is above the law", including politicians. Wilder had planned the inflammatory remarks beforehand and incited others to discriminate people of Moroccan origin, he said.
"If a politician crosses the line, that doesn't mean free speech is being restricted," he said. "A crime cannot be protected by the right to free speech."
In a videotaped response to the verdict, which he did not attend in person, Wilders said: "I will never be silenced" and the ruling was an attempt to "neutralize the leader of the largest and most popular opposition party in the Netherlands."
Steenhuis said Moroccans form a clearly defined population within the Netherlands that Wilders had "singled out ... (as having) less rights" to reside in the Netherlands. There are roughly 400,000 people of Moroccan origin in the Netherlands.
"This statement can be regarded as affecting the dignity of this group as a whole. It is insulting for the entire group," the ruling said.
In closing remarks on Nov. 23, Wilders told judges his remarks were obviously not intended as a call to genocide -- he has never advocated violence -- but rather a reference to his official party platform.
Measures he endorses that could lead to fewer Moroccans include a ban on immigration, expelling Moroccans with dual nationality who commit crimes, and a "voluntary repatriation" policy.
Prosecutors, who rejected Wilders' assertions the trial was politically motivated and an unfair attempt to limit his right to free speech, had asked that a fine of 5,000 euros (4,211.03 pounds), but no prison sentence, be imposed.
Wilders appeal is likely to last throughout the parliamentary election campaign, which runs for six weeks before voting on March 15.
A previous attempt to prosecute Wilders for anti-Islam remarks, such as likening the religion to Nazism and calling for a ban on the Koran, ended in acquittal in 2011. That process was widely seen as strengthening his reputation as a defender of freedom of speech and increased his popularity.
Reporting by Toby Sterling, editing by Larry King