Activist charged with Fortuyn murder

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The Independent Online

Police charged a 32-year-old animal rights activist with the first political assassination in modern Dutch history yesterday, but the motivation for the killing remains opaque.

Volkert van der Graaf is accused of firing five shots from close range into the chest and head of the far-right leader Pim Fortuyn, and, if convicted, faces a maximum 20-year jail sentence. Police are investigating a possible link between Mr van der Graaf – who has so far refused to speak to them – and an unsolved murder in 1996. There were also two unsolved attacks on farms.

Mr van der Graaf, a vegan, had kept a low profile in his nine months as a resident of the picturesque town of Harderwijk. But his work for an environmental campaign group, Milieu Offensief (Environment Offensive) made him well known to farmers in the Netherlands' conservative "Bible belt".

Each time they sought to change their farming permits, they would come up against Mr van der Graaf, first in their local council, then in the national courts.

Peter Olofson, a farmer with 800 cattle on his land just outside Harderwijk, said the murder suspect "was like a dog: he would not let go".

Between 1998 and 2001, Mr van der Graaf queried every aspect of Mr Olofson's application to switch from farming ducks to cattle, although the farmer eventually won through. Mr Olofson said: "He was a fanatic, he was out to destroy all the farmers in the area. It was animals, animals, animals – he didn't care about people."

The two men met three or four times and Mr van der Graaf revealed how strict his eating habits were. "He tried to cut off eating all meat. He's a super-vegan – no milk, no honey," said Mr Olofson.

Another farmer who had similar dealings with Mr van der Graaf declined to be named for fear of reprisals but argued: "He was not a person I liked, he was very fanatical. He listened but, at the end of it, he went his own way."

Since the arrest, farmers have questioned whether Dutch tolerance went too far in its acceptance of the environmental group Mr van der Graaf helped found. The organisation received £100,000 from the national lottery fund between 1992 and 1998.

Mr van der Graaf made little impression in the town of Harderwijk itself. He is not listed in the telephone directory and the police, who raided the home at 3am yesterday, have kept the address secret for fear that Fortuyn supporters will wreak a violent revenge. Aware that the location will almost certainly leak out soon, the suspect's wife has left the home, with their young baby.

Police are investigating potential links between Mr van der Graaf and an unsolved murder in 1996 in nearby Nunspeet, when a council farming advisor was shot dead at close range while jogging.

But for now they lack a clear motive for the killing of Mr Fortuyn, who was not outspoken on the environment. The flamboyant gay politician was a dog lover and had also criticised factory farming methods.

But he had also attacked the green movement and suggested loosening of controls on farmers, particular those in the fur trade. That may have been a particular challenge to Mr van der Graaf, who was an expert in deploying the minutiae of the law against the factory farming he despised.

Before moving to Harderwijk, Mr van der Graaf studied at the agricultural college in Wageningen, and then worked for the anti-meat trade group, Lekker Dier.

Harderwijk has seen two recent episodes of direct action: an attack on a duck farm and one on trucks used to transport live animals. But the town's new notoriety has taken its residents by surprise. One entry in the town hall's book of condolence for Mr Fortuyn reads: "I am ashamed to death, being from Harderwijk."

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