Monday 27 March 2023

Coronavirus sceptic Engel found guilty of incitement to break law

A gavel in a courtroom.

Photo: Depositphotos

Coronavirus sceptic Willem Engel has been found guilty of inciting people to go to a banned demonstration and given a one-month, suspended jail sentence.

The founder of the protest group Viruswaarheid had been charged with posting six social media messages inciting people to break the law during coronavirus restrictions. The public prosecutor called for 180 hours of community service and a three-month, suspended jail sentence.

However, in an hour-long verdict in Rotterdam, a judge found that Engel was only guilty of incitement for one post and not guilty in the other cases. He found that Engel did incite people to attend a banned demonstration in The Hague in June 2020 in a livestream on Facebook, although attending a banned protest is a legal ‘infringement’ but not a criminal offense.

‘Before [the messages] were shared, they were discussed in a group of 10 legal experts,’ said the judge. ‘The words were consciously chosen…and deliberately made public.’

Unusually, the judge said he was making the post public with the judgement so that the public could better understand the verdict.

Engel, a 45-year-old dance teacher from Rotterdam, was found not guilty of incitement in another five messages. The judge did say he had ‘broken a moral limit’ with an ‘ugly’ appeal to people to telephone a care home which had shut its doors, but this was not unlawful.

‘The right to demonstrate is a very important constitutional right,’ added the judge. ‘Only in extraordinary cases, when other interests weigh more heavily, may a demonstration be limited or forbidden. Especially if a demonstration is set up to protest against government policy, a government cannot use its powers lightly …When it is severely restricting the freedom of citizens as in the corona crisis, the desire to protest is even greater and the need to exercise that fundamental right is even more pressing.’

He also said that Engel’s right to free speech had to be weighed against spreading social unrest and the dangers of mass groupings in the ‘coronaviruscontext’.

Giving the jail sentence, suspended for two years, the judge said his aim was to stop Engel from doing the same thing again and make it clear to others that ‘undermining local authorities will not be tolerated’.

Engel lost a call for a retrial earlier this week, and claimed in court that the pursuit and his arrest were ‘politically motivated’. The public prosecution began an investigation in January 2022, after 22,000 people signed a joint complaint accusing him of sedition, threats, spreading medical misinformation and fraud.

The ANP has reported that Engel intends to appeal the sentence. His lawyer did not respond to a request from Dutch News for a reaction.

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