Dutch politician's killer freed after 12 years

AMSTERDAM (AP) — The animal rights activist who assassinated Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn was freed Friday, after serving just under 12 years in prison — years during which many of Fortuyn's ideas, particularly his disdain of "multiculturalism" and his dislike of Muslim immigration, have become mainstream in the Netherlands.

Volkert van der Graaf killed Fortuyn on May 6, 2002, days before national elections in which Fortuyn was set to win big on an anti-immigration platform that upended the then-progressive Dutch political landscape.

Fortuyn's slaying shocked a nation that had not seen anything like it. Voters flocked to the party of the martyred Fortuyn. But it lacked stability without its flamboyant leader, and the Netherlands entered a period of tumultuous politics that lasted a decade.

Still, his ideas were increasingly taken up by successor parties and by the mainstream right. Successive governments have passed laws ordering citizenship classes for immigrants and making it more difficult to immigrate but easier to be deported.

Criminals normally receive conditional release after serving two-thirds of a sentence in the Netherlands, but Van der Graaf's 18-year sentence was criticized as too light from the moment it was handed down. How could a man commit the premeditated murder of a politician and walk away 12 years later?

Fortuyn supporters have scheduled a protest against his release in Rotterdam Friday evening, and right-wing groups have vowed to track Van der Graaf down and kill him.

Justice Ministry spokesman Jochgem van Opstal said Van der Graaf's release has conditions attached, including wearing a tracking ankle band and not visiting areas related to his crime or Fortuyn's family and political support.

But "judges determined the punishment," he said. There is no death penalty in the Netherlands.

In Van der Graaf's case, judges had to choose between a maximum sentence of 20 years for an odd but sane first-time offender — or life in prison without possibility of parole. They gave him 18 years.

Van der Graaf was a vegan with a girlfriend and infant daughter who had devoted his life to animal rights causes. He claimed at trial he had seen Fortuyn as "a danger for society," and compared his rise to that of Nazism in the 1930s.

But in a letter leaked by a lawyer for the Fortuyn family, Van der Graaf in jail wrote to his girlfriend "if I ever give a statement to judges or the media, then of course it doesn't necessarily have to be the truth. For the outside world the truth isn't important, it only needs to be functional."

A small part of Fortuyn's platform was to ditch a proposed ban on mink breeding.

Van der Graaf said at his trial and later appeal he wasn't yet sure whether what he did was wrong. But he confessed, took responsibility for his actions, offered apologies to Fortuyn's family, and promised he would never do anything like it again.

"The public prosecutor's office has said there's no reason to think he will be a repeat offender," Van Opstal said.

Since 2002, Fortuyn-inspired governments have also introduced tougher criminal laws, including making it possible for judges to grant sentences of up to 30 years, or more for terrorist acts. Average sentence lengths have increased, and life sentences have become far more common.

It is not known where Van der Graaf will live, whether he will have police protection, or whether he will be able to have any relationship with his girlfriend and their daughter, now a teenager.

In an interview with national broadcaster NOS Friday, Pim Fortuyn's brother urged supporters not to "try to play judge themselves."

But he said that if he were Van der Graaf "I'd make sure that I went far away and could not be recognized."

"Fortunately, Volkert van der Graaf still has a life sentence: he'll always have to be looking over his shoulder," he said.