Europe's youth-focused Identitarian movement was already one of the most influential groups on the Continent's rising far-right scene. Now a high-stakes court ruling that could have shut down the group’s Austrian operations has gone the movement’s way — and observers say it’s only emboldened the extremists.
Leaders of the Identitarian Movement say they have been vindicated after a judge in the district court of Grazer Strafland acquitted 17 members and sympathizers on charges of belonging to a criminal organization and hate speech.
Ten prominent members of the group, including 29-year-old co-leader Martin Sellner, and seven sympathizers, had been on trial in the city of Graz this month, following a two-year-long investigation into their activities. But last Thursday, all 17 – 16 men and one woman, aged 20 to 35 — were found not guilty of criminal association and hate speech. The judge ruled that although members of the group may have committed individual crimes, the Identitarian movement was not at its core a criminal organization.
To observers of Austria’s far-right scene, the case highlights the limitations of the legal system as a tool to combat the burgeoning climate of far-right extremism.
“While it is useful and pretty effective when it comes to neo-Nazis, more modern right-wing extremists like the Identitarians cannot be defeated in court, at least not primarily there,” Bernhard Weidinger, a researcher at the Documentation Center of Austrian Resistance, told VICE News.
“Dealing with challenges like that is a collective societal responsibility that cannot be delegated to the judiciary.”“Dealing with challenges like that is a collective societal responsibility that cannot be delegated to the judiciary,” he added.
The Identitarians were buoyant in the wake of the verdicts, trumpeting the acquittals on social media as a vindication of their activism. “Love of the homeland is not a crime,” the group said in a statement.
Two of the accused were found guilty and fined on lesser charges. One was convicted of bodily harm and coercion and fined 720 euros ($843) for an altercation when the group stormed a lecture on refugee policy at Klagenfurt University in 2016, unfurling a banner which read "Integration is a lie." Another was convicted of property damage and fined 240 euros ($281)
“Dealing with challenges like that is a collective societal responsibility that cannot be delegated to the judiciary.”
While the prosecutor has said he will appeal the acquittals in a higher court, observers fear that the ruling has already emboldened the Identitarians and effectively green-lit their far-right activism. "The main actors of the Identitarian movement are now strutting around trying to use the verdict as proof that they are not right-wing extremists," said Austria’s anti-terror chief Peter Gridling, head of the country’s main domestic intelligence agency BVT, in an interview with the Wiener Zeitung newspaper Saturday.
Austria is a hub of Generation Identity, the far-right pan-European movement that is opposed to immigration, particularly from Muslim countries. The group’s goal is to mainstream debate on issues such as immigration and multiculturalism, by abandoning the politically toxic symbols of the traditional far-right and presenting what they intend to be a more palatable version of their xenophobic politics. The group generally avoids openly racist statements, instead couching its opposition to mass immigration in rhetoric about a “Great Replacement.”
The youth-focused group has gained traction in recent years through its social media campaigns and attention-grabbing stunts it says are modeled on the tactics of Greenpeace, such as occupying a French mosque, blocking a mountain pass used by migrants to cross the Alps, and chartering a ship in a bid to block rescued migrants from landing in European ports.
With the ruling in Austria, the group has found its latest headline grabbing moment, and has wasted no time using it to its advantage.
In a YouTube video post on Friday, Sellner — alongside his girlfriend, American alt-right activist Brittany Pettibone — declared the acquittals a major vindication for the movement.
“I think it’s a major step for Austria, but also for the whole European movement to, in this very, very intense and huge trial, see that GI [Generation Identity] is not criminal,” said Sellner, who was prevented from entering the UK to speak in March, as authorities deemed his presence would not have been “conducive to the public good.”
“We will continue with our activism and definitely go on, because I think in a way what we are doing has been justified and vindicated,” said Sellner.
Cover image: Around 150 members of the far right identitarian movement held a remembrance demonstration at Kahlenberg Vienna, Austria including a torch march, on September 10, 2017. (Photo by David Speier/NurPhoto/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)
This article originally appeared on VICE US.