(Dutch right-wing politician Geert Wilders in the courtroom in Amsterdam June 23, 2011/Robin Utrecht)

Dutch populist politician Geert Wilders was acquitted of inciting hatred of Muslims in a court ruling on Thursday that may strengthen his political influence and exacerbate tensions over immigration policy. The case was seen by some as a test of free speech in a country which has a long tradition of tolerance and blunt talk, but where opposition to immigration, particularly from Muslim or predominantly Muslim countries, is on the rise.

Instantly recognizable by his mane of dyed blond hair, Wilders, 47, is one of the most outspoken critics of Islam and immigration in the Netherlands. His Freedom Party is now the third-largest in parliament, a measure of support for its anti-immigrant stance, and is the minority government’s chief ally. But many of Wilders’ comments — such as likening Islam to Nazism — are socially divisive.

The presiding judge said Wilders’ remarks were sometimes “hurtful,” “shocking” or “offensive,” but that they were made in the context of a public debate about Muslim integration and multi-culturalism, and therefore not a criminal act.

“I am extremely pleased and happy,” Wilders told reporters after the ruling. “This is not so much a win for myself, but a victory for freedom of speech. Fortunately you can criticize Islam and not be gagged in public debate.”