Fortuyn's killer faces justice

21st July 2003, Comments 0 comments

The Dutch public has long had a soft spot for squatters, rebels and outsiders, but all that changed when animal rights activist Volkert van der Graaf, 33, gunned down populist politician Pim Fortuyn on 6 May 2002.

Five bullets — three in his head, one in his neck and one in his back — hit Fortuyn as he left a radio station in Hilversum. Van der Graaf was captured a short distance from the scene.

The killing was a defining moment in modern Dutch history. It was the first political assassination in 300 years and in one murderous second, the country lost its most flamboyant and popular politician in living memory. Political consensus in the Netherlands totally collapsed as Fortuyn's supporters accused the "Left" of complicity in Fortuyn's murder.

"The bullet came from the Left", fumed Ferry Hoogendijk, a leading member of Fortuyn's LPF party.

Disillusioned voters — who were enamoured by (with) Fortuyn — flocked to the polls nine days after the killing, giving the LPF 1.6 million votes and 26 seats in the 150-seat parliament.

Long-standing toleration of immigrants and law breaking was swept aside as tightening the borders and fighting crime became the main priorities.

Exactly the opposite, it would seem, of what Van der Graaf intended. And far from being seen as a hero, the majority of the Dutch public hopes the court will throw away the key when Van der Graaf is sentenced on 15 April.

Volkert Van Der Graaf

A survey by polling organisation NIPO has found 65 percent of the population wants to see Van der Graaf go down for life. And one in five Dutch people even think the life sentence demanded by the prosecution is not severe enough.

Who is this man who has attracted so much hatred?

Volkert van der Graaf is a white Dutch father of one child who lived in rented accommodation in the town of Harderwijk, east of the Ijsselmeer.

A committed vegan, he dedicated his life to actively campaigning for animal rights. At the age of 15, Van der Graaf helped care for oil-covered birds in Zeeland province.

Later he attended Wageningen agricultural college to study life sciences and agriculture. While there, he joined an anti-vivisection group and campaigned to reduce the use of lab animals.

By all accounts, Van der Graaf was intelligent but never really stood out from the crowd. Shunning the mainstream environmental lobby group Milieudefensie (environment defence), he went to work behind the scenes for a smaller, pro-active group calling itself Milieu-Offensief (environment offensive).

A few years ago, Van der Graaf gave an interview to an animal rights website in which he explained: "We use legal means to fight permits for factory and fur farms. We use the law as our tool".

Pim Fortuyn: faced allegations of being too right wing

In the light of statements like these, most of his acquaintances appeared shocked that he had resorted to violent means. But the media wondered whether he killed Fortuyn because the politician wanted to lift the ban on fur farming.

In the months after his arrest there was all manner of public speculation about his motives and Fortuyn’s LPF party played up the suggestion other people may have been involved in the murder plot. All the while, Van der Graaf remained silent and refused to answer police questions about the shooting.

He even went on hunger strike to protest against having the light kept on 24 hours in his cell to enable constant camera surveillance. At one stage it looked as if he would fast to the death and deprive Fortuyn's family of the chance to find out why he murdered the politician.

He was eventually persuaded to start eating again and his trial was adjourned late last year so he could be psychiatrically assessed in the Peter Baan Centre in Utrecht.

When his trial resumed in March, Van der Graaf broke his silence and spoke publicly for the first time about his motives for killing Fortuyn. His statements throw up as many questions as they answered.

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