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Court dismisses incitement charges against Independence Day swastika flag wavers

"It was not proven [in the case] that the swastika flag would send a threatening and offensive message linked to anti-immigration efforts," the district court said in its decision.

Helsinki police officers interrupting the group's march on 6 December 2018. Image: Martti Kainulainen / Lehtikuva

The Helsinki District Court on Monday dismissed the criminal charges against five men suspected of incitement against an ethnic group for participating in the display of swastika flags at an Independence Day demonstration in 2018.

The five defendants took part in the neo-Nazi 'Kohti vapautta' ('toward freedom') demonstration in Helsinki on 6 December 2018.

According to the indictment, three of the defendants carried swastika flags during the demonstration while the fourth man organised the march and the fifth defendant participated in the procession and helped to carry the flags.

In its decision the court acknowledged the flags were specifically associated with the ideologies and deeds of Nazi Germany in the 1940s, which included the persecution and genocide of millions of Jewish people, among other atrocities.

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The demonstrators marched through Helsinki on 6 December 2018. Image: Martti Kainulainen / Lehtikuva

However, in its decision, the court also said that the mere act of displaying a swastika flag did not amount to incitement against an ethnic group, noting such a crime would involve threatening, slandering or insulting a group of people on the basis of, for example, race or religion.

"It was not proven [in the case] that the swastika flag would send a threatening and offensive message linked to anti-immigration efforts," the court said in its decision.

The court also dismissed charges of interfering with authorities. According to the prosecutor, four of the defendants tried to prevent police from confiscating the flags. The court said that the police had no legal grounds to interfere with the procession members' freedom of assembly.

However, one one of the men who took part in the Independence Day demonstration was fined for incitement against an ethnic group, after being found guilty of delivering a threatening speech outside a school. A woman who video recorded the speech and streamed it online was also fined.

All of the court's decisions were not final, as the cases can still be brought to the Court of Appeal for consideration.

According to the indictment, the five defendants were members of the Finnish chapter (PVL) of the Nordic Resistance movement, which was banned by the Pirkanmaa District Court in November 2017. The group was subsequently banned by the Supreme Court in 2019.

The defendants denied that they were representing the group on the march.

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State prosecutor Raija Toiviainen. Image: Yle

Displaying a flag with a swastika is not against the law in Finland. But state prosecutor Raija Toiviainen said it was a well-known symbol of Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany.

Before Monday's verdict was delivered, Toiviainen said use of the flags during the Independence Day demonstration sent a clearly racist and insulting message which threatened groups of people that the participants thought were inferior.

After the verdict, Toiviainen said she planned to appeal the district court's decision.

"I thought this would have been a clearer thing, but I see now that this requires reflection. In my opinion, the charges were justified, I have to take some time to examine the court's decision," she said.

University of Helsinki criminal law professor Kimmo Nuotio said he was surprised by the district court's ruling, adding that he thinks it would be good for the case to be examined by a higher court.

"Now, on one hand, the district court emphasised the importance of freedom of speech and there's the right to express one's opinion on the other," Nuotio said.

Some European countries, including Germany, have banned the display of swastikas due to the atrocities associated with the symbol. However, the Finnish Air Force continues to use the controversial symbol on some unit flags, although it has been removed from the Air Force command insignia.

Nuotio said that it was possible that Finland would also discuss the possibility of banning the display of swastikas.

Yle News published an article explaining the complex history of the swastika in Finland in 2017.