A Dutch court has told the government to immediately lift a nationwide Covid curfew that sparked the worst riots in the Netherlands for decades.
The government wrongly used emergency powers to bring in the first curfew since the Nazi occupation during the second world war, a judge at The Hague district court ruled.
The case was launched by the Viruswaarheid (Virus Truth) group, which has led a series of protests against coronavirus measures in the Netherlands.
“The curfew must be lifted immediately,” the court said on Tuesday. “The curfew is a far-reaching violation of the right to freedom of movement and privacy.”
The Dutch government immediately appealed and asked the court to suspend the order prohibiting the curfew. A hearing into the suspension request was halted after a few minutes when a member of the group that sought to overturn the curfew accused the presiding judge of bias.
The full appeal hearing was scheduled for Friday.
The prime minister urged people to “keep respecting the curfew”, even if the appeal failed.
“If the curfew was not based on the correct legal basis at this time … that does not mean that this measure is not necessary,” Mark Rutte told a news conference.
The Viruswaarheid founder, Willem Engel, a dance teacher whose social media posts raise questions about vaccines and the origins of coronavirus, hailed the ruling.
“I’ve had hundreds, thousands of messages of congratulations. People are very happy, they feel liberated,” he said. “Of course we’re not there yet, we have many more steps to go, but I think that there will be some joyful demonstrations here and there this evening.”
The curfew began on 23 January and was extended last week until 2 March.
Three nights of riots erupted on the weekend it started, with police using water cannon and teargas against protesters in cities including Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Eindhoven. They were the most serious riots in the Netherlands for 40 years and led to dozens of arrests.
The Netherlands remains under its tightest restrictions since the start of the pandemic, with all non-essential shops, bars, restaurants and secondary schools closed.
The curfew ruling comes as a blow to Rutte’s government before elections on 17 March. His cabinet is operating in a caretaker capacity after resigning in January over a child benefits scandal.
The court said the government “did not invoke the special urgency required” to use the emergency laws that it employed to bring in the curfew without going through the lower and upper houses of parliament.
Curfews were for use in sudden emergencies such as a dyke breach, the judge said. “Therefore, the use of this law to impose a curfew is not legitimate,” the court said.
The decision drew a mixed reaction across the country. “Everybody’s happy, I saw internet exploding with happy people because there’s really no reason for a curfew,” Alexandra Vos, the owner of a coach company, said.
Laura Baseler, a student, said she backed the restrictions after a variant first found in Britain began circulating in the Netherlands. “I understand that some people want the curfew gone but I kind of follow the government,” she said.
The populist Forum for Democracy party led by the Eurosceptic politician Thierry Baudet welcomed the court’s decision, tweeting: “The freedom to go outside is a fundamental right.”
Viruswaarheid was formerly known as Viruswaanzin (Virus Madness), and in addition to protests it also holds regular live Q&A sessions via Zoom that are published on Facebook and YouTube.
Engel has become one of the Netherlands’ most influential campaigners against coronavirus restrictions.
He has said on social media that the current situation is a “dictatorship” and claims without evidence that the riots were orchestrated by an “intelligence agency” so the government could call in the army.
Engel’s social media posts also question whether coronavirus was created in a laboratory, describe a so-called British strain of the virus as a “hoax”, and say Covid-19 vaccinations are “probably not working”.