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The Many Assassins of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme

It’s been over three decades since Swedish prime minister Olof Palme was assassinated outside a Stockholm cinema, and Swedish police have still never found the killer. The vast array of theories explaining the killing are a reflection of Swedes’ ongoing fascination for Palme — but also highlights how many enemies he made as prime minister with his bold internationalism.

Olof Palme with his wife, Lisbeth, and their elder sons, Joakim and Mårten, in the garden of their home in a suburb of Stockholm in 1964.

Late one winter evening in 1986, Sweden’s prime minister, Olof Palme, left Grand, an Art Deco cinema in Stockholm’s city center. The internationalist statesman and  Social-Democratic Party (SAP) leader had come to see a comedy with his wife, Lisbeth, his son Mårten, and Mårten’s partner. Palme and his wife parted ways with the young couple and started walking home, but after only a few hundred meters, someone came up behind them and fired two bullets.

The first bullet entered the back of Olof’s neck and severed his carotid artery. The second missed Lisbeth by an inch. The perpetrator left the scene before a group of pedestrians arrived to find their prime minister bleeding out on the sidewalk. A passing ambulance rushed Palme to the emergency room, but it was too late. Just after midnight on March 1, 1986, Olof Palme was declared dead.

What wasn’t clear was who killed him — and why. The day after the murder, a tip came in to the police, opening up the first line of inquiry. Two women pointed toward the possible guilt of thirty-three-year-old Victor Gunnarsson, a former member of the European Workers’ Party (EAP), a fringe group in the attentions of the Swedish Security Service (SÄPO). The local branch of the conspiracist LaRouche movement, the EAP had long accused Palme of being on the payroll of both the KGB and the CIA.

Given numerous testimonies documenting Gunnarsson’s hatred of Palme, it seemed plausible that he was the perpetrator — and when he was brought in for questioning, a technical investigation of particles found on his jacket indicated that he had recently fired a gun. But it wasn’t proven to have been the murder weapon; and after a week’s detention, he was released, while remaining under close watch by a special task force. Finally, on May 16, 1987, the investigation into Gunnarsson was closed. But seven years later, his body was found in the woods outside of Salisbury, North Carolina, with two gunshot wounds to the head.

As it turned out, he was just the first in a long series of suspects. Following the end of the Gunnarsson lead, the official investigation was initially directed by the charismatic detective Hans Holmér, the erstwhile police chief of the Stockholm region. According to Palme’s finance minister, Kjell-Olof Feldt, Holmér had been “awarded” the job as a consequence of his loyalty to the SAP through two major political scandals. The first of these was the public exposure of the security apparatus’s surveillance of communists from the late 1960s onward. The second was the cover-up of a damning memorandum that Sweden’s national police chief, Carl Persson, sent to Palme in 1976. This memorandum identified Palme’s justice minister, Lennart Geijer, as a potential security risk, as he was alleged to have patronized a brothel that employed Polish prostitutes with contacts in the KGB.

Yet under Holmér, the investigation into Palme’s assassination soon collapsed into chaos. Attention shifted away from credible leads and toward press conferences celebrating the chief investigator and his spectacular methods, which included the deployment of fighter jets in search of the murder weapon.  Still today, we don’t know who the assassin was, but the lack of conclusions also points to Palme’s many controversial political ties — and the political nature of the investigation itself.

Widely regarded as the most influential and controversial politician in modern Swedish history, Olof Palme certainly had many enemies, both at home and abroad. Every year, on the anniversary of his assassination, most media outlets across the political spectrum publish specials about Palme’s legacy, digging up old theories or speculating about some novel conspiracy. The seemingly never-ending investigation is still an unresolved trauma for Swedish society, but perhaps it’s also the last tangible relationship Swedes have to a time when the small country saw itself as a humanitarian superpower.

PKK Lead

The investigation’s spectacular turn was apparent just a week after the assassination, as Holmér chose to point the spotlight toward the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) — a decision based on circumstantial evidence at best.

In 1984 and 1985, several ex-members of the PKK were murdered in Sweden, leading Olof Palme’s government to classify it as a terrorist organization. With both the political murders and this “terrorist” designation widely discussed in Swedish media, the general public viewed the party as an organization with a capacity for violence. This widespread suspicion of the PKK served to legitimize Holmér’s “Operation Alpha.” On the morning of January 20, 1987, the Swedish police rounded up twenty-two Kurds for questioning without a shred of evidence. This led nowhere, and they were all soon released.

In the weeks that followed, the chief investigator was roundly criticized by prosecutors and the media for flouting due process in the course of Operation Alpha and for making unsubstantiated claims that the investigation would soon be closed. In February 1987, within a year of his appointment, Holmér was discharged in disgrace, and all other leads gathered during his time as chief investigator were reportedly placed in a safe in his office. During his retirement, Holmér wrote a book about the investigation — helping to launch his second career as a successful crime novelist.

Despite the police’s abandonment of the PKK lead, some in Sweden still believed the party to be guilty of Palme’s assassination. This group included Holmér’s good friend Ebbe Carlsson, the head of Sweden’s largest publishing house. With unofficial approval from the heads of the Swedish Security Service and the National Police, Carlsson continued Holmér’s investigation privately. This included the illegal wiretapping of several PKK members living in Sweden. Through his contacts in the police, Carlsson was given access to secret documents, an undercover police car, and a bodyguard.

Justice minister Anna-Greta Leijon directly assisted Carlsson’s efforts by writing him letters of recommendation to extend his investigation into the UK. There, Carlsson hoped to follow up a theory that Iran had orchestrated the plot, together with the PKK, as revenge for Palme’s cancellation of an illicit weapons deal that would have sent a Swedish anti-aircraft system to the Islamic Republic during the Iran-Iraq War. When journalists started poking around, the letters in question were quickly classified — but the damage was already done. In 1988, this scheme was uncovered by journalists at Expressen, leading to the resignation of Lejion and several other government officials.

Christer Pettersson

Following his dismissal, Holmér was briefly succeeded by his deputy Ulf Karlsson, who was in turn replaced by Hans Ölvebro in February 1988. Ölvebro, who lacked Holmér’s public persona, led the investigation for another decade, focusing primarily on Christer Pettersson, an addict and alcoholic well known to local police.

In early 1987, the police suddenly began receiving tips suggesting that Pettersson — who had been questioned already at the beginning of the investigation — resembled the face in the sketches released by the police. Pettersson was brought in for questioning in December of 1988 and lined up before Palme’s son Mårten. Films of these lineups were later shown to Lisbeth Palme, who identified Pettersson as the murderer more than two years after the event. In the summer of 1989, Pettersson was convicted in the lower court by a majority of three to two. The Swedish judicial system is quite exceptional in that the three “judges” who voted to convict Pettersson were “lay judges,” meaning that they had been appointed by political parties, while the two judges who voted to acquit were those with a background in law.

Only half a year later, Pettersson’s conviction was overturned, and he received SEK 300,000 for having been wrongfully convicted. Police misconduct during the identification process played a role in Pettersson’s exoneration. Before Lisbeth was given the chance to view the lineups, she was told that the suspect was an alcoholic. In comparison with the fellow men in the lineup, it was obvious that Pettersson fit the bill. As it turns out, this was hardly the only complication surrounding the testimony of the case’s key witness.

Olof and Lisbeth had been together when the murder took place, and unlike any of the other witnesses, she claimed that the murderer had turned around as if to look back at his deed. She later told investigators that she had seen the face of the perpetrator at that moment, but she consistently refused to be recorded during any of the testimonies and to participate in the reconstruction of the murder scene. In the years to come, Lisbeth gave several conflicting testimonies describing the face of the murderer. To add yet another layer of complexity, she did not grant the detectives permission to take any notes, meaning that they had to recount her descriptions of the shooter to sketch artists.

The investigation into Christer Pettersson did not end with his acquittal. When Hans Ölvebro was replaced as chief investigator in January 1997, Pettersson was once again identified as a key suspect. Police and prosecutors tried once more to bring charges in 1998, but the case was dismissed by the supreme court. In an autobiography published in 2005, Lillemor Östlin claimed that a drug dealer had conspired with a police officer to get Pettersson convicted in order to collect a SEK 50 million reward. In a 2006 documentary aired on the public broadcaster SVT, the spotlight was again redirected at Christer Pettersson. The documentary concluded that Pettersson was indeed the murderer, but that he had drunkenly mistaken Palme for the drug dealer Sigge Cedergren, whom he owed SEK 12,000.

The Police Theory

It is notable that there has never been a full-fledged investigation into the police itself, despite there having been several leads pointing in that direction. Some claim that the police participated in the assassination and that they have actively steered the investigation in the wrong direction. What limited scrutiny makes evident is that there is a large contingent of Swedish police officers with right-wing extremist views, many of whom openly express hatred for Palme. There have been reports of police officers celebrating the murder with champagne. In 2010, documents from the official investigation were declassified, revealing that some right-wing officers claimed that they knew who the assassin was. Some of these officers had been associated with Hans Holmér’s so-called Baseball Gang, a group of policemen who went around Stockholm dressed in baseball caps, violently attacking people.

Many public figures have suggested that the police have not taken such leads seriously enough. One of the most prominent critics is the professor of criminology and high-profile TV host Leif G. W. Persson. G. W. points to the pervasive right-wing sentiment within the police and the military, and the fact that many officers and soldiers viewed Palme as a Soviet agent — and that some still do. Another critic of the investigation is the Supreme Court justice Göran Lambertz, who called the whole investigation a “fiasco” in 2012. The judge pointed to the fact that a specialist review commission had called for an inquiry into right-wing extremism among police as far back as 1999, but that this was never acted upon.

Swedish Security Service (SÄPO)

Some theories point toward the Security Service as being behind the assassination, citing the fact that Palme was without a bodyguard on the fateful night of February 28, 1986. Palme’s longtime bodyguard, John-Erik Hahne, had been with the prime minister during the day, but left him as evening came. According to Hahne, Palme had asked to be left alone for the weekend so that he could spend time writing speeches. The prime minister allegedly assured Hahne that if the need arose, he would be called.

In 2012, one of Palme’s sons directed harsh criticism at the Security Service on the popular talk show Skavlan, saying that when the prime minister’s wife, Lisbeth, called for a bodyguard that evening, they could not get ahold of anyone. One of the central officers working with Holmér on the PKK lead, Ingemar Krusell, rejected this claim, claiming that the Security Service was always on call and that Lisbeth Palme must be misremembering. Hahne concurred, saying that “it most definitely was not the case.” Nevertheless, no investigation has followed these claims, a fact that has received criticism in the official investigation into police negligence.

South Africa

Just a week prior to the assassination, Olof Palme had delivered a rousing speech to the Swedish Parliament in condemnation of South Africa’s apartheid regime. The prime minister, a strong supporter of the African National Congress (ANC) and allied national-liberation movements in Namibia, Mozambique, and Angola, had been a persistent thorn in the side of the South African government. Known for carrying out assassinations and kidnappings of ANC leaders abroad, the South African intelligence apparatus had successfully infiltrated some of Europe’s major anti-apartheid organizations, including the International University Exchange Fund (IUEF), itself primarily supported by the Swedish government.

A spy who had infiltrated the IUEF, Craig Williamson, was identified as a potential suspect by the newspaper Svenska Dagbladet in 1987, and the former South African intelligence officer Eugene de Kock in 1996. From his prison cell in Pretoria, de Kock also named Bertil Wedin, a former agent of the Swedish Security Service who had been charged by a British court in 1982 with conspiring to break into the London offices of the ANC and the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO). Several private investigators and journalists have thus attempted to tie the “South Africa lead” with theories pointing to far-right elements in the Swedish Security Service and the police.

Ustaša

Another theory points to the Ustaša, the Croatian ultranationalist group allied to the Nazis during World War II. With the victory of the Communist partisans and the 1945 foundation of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY), several senior Ustaša figures fled to Argentina, from where they directed a revanchist terror campaign against the SFRY. This campaign involved multiple attempts to occupy the Yugoslav consulate in Gothenburg and the 1971 assassination of the Yugoslav ambassador to Sweden.

One of the convicted assassins, Miro Barešić, was released from Swedish custody in 1972 in exchange for hostages held by his confederates at an airport in Malmö. Fleeing first to Spain and then to Paraguay, the Ustaša agent later served as a captain in the army of Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner and as a bodyguard to the Paraguayan ambassador to the United States. In 1980, Barešić was extradited from the United States to Sweden in order to serve the remainder of his prison sentence — leading some to believe that the Palme assassination was an act of revenge by the Ustaša for imprisoning and hunting down one of their own.

India

In 1986, India made the largest weapons order in Swedish history, purchasing SEK 8.6 billion in cannons from the Swedish weapons manufacturer Bofors. On the day of Palme’s assassination, the prime minister had met with the Iraqi ambassador to Sweden, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, otherwise known as Baghdad Bob. Some speculate that it was during this meeting that Palme was informed that a bribe of SEK 320 million had been deposited into a middleman’s Swiss bank account in order to push the arms deal through.

This allegedly led Palme to contact a senior Bofors figure, whom he berated for their criminal malfeasance. Historian Jan Bondeson suggests that had this deal gone through, Palme risked losing all credibility as “the world’s leading proponent of disarmament, and the official UN arbitrator in the Iran-Iraq war.” Thus, theories suggest that Palme’s assassination was ordered by someone with a stake in the deal in order to prevent the prime minister from blocking it. The deal eventually went through on the day of Palme’s funeral, when his successor, Ingvar Carlsson, met with the Indian prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi.

“Skandiamannen”

“Skandia man” was the alias given to Stig Engström, an ad man who worked for the insurance company Skandia, whose offices were meters from the murder scene. A member of Sweden’s main right-wing party, the Moderates, Engström was identified as the possible assassin in 2016 in a book titled The Enemy of the Nation. This theory gained traction when Olof’s son Mårten Palme said that Engström looked like a man he had seen outside the cinema. The theory was further legitimized when a pedestrian who had actually witnessed the murder claimed that it was “very possible” that Engström was the assassin.

The KGB

As mentioned previously, some believed that Olof Palme was a KGB agent and that his assassination was a product of the dysfunctional bureaucracy of the Soviet Union. This theory has it that during a secret meeting in Switzerland, KGB agents entertained the idea of having Palme “swept away” for refusing to follow the orders of his supposed Kremlin handlers. However, something purportedly went wrong. While the top brass in the Soviet leadership was never informed of the alleged plans, the kill order was said to have been entered into a computer somewhere in the KGB’s bureaucratic apparatus. While those allegedly responsible for both the initial plot and the clerical error were never identified, a KGB officer was twice questioned by Swedish investigators.

Contentious Role

The above theories make up just a small selection of the dozens, even hundreds of potential leads — conspiracies that may sound like they are lifted straight from a Don DeLillo novel. That is precisely because Olof Palme was murdered in a different world, the world of Cold War geopolitics, in which Sweden played a highly contentious and sometimes ambiguous role.

While officially nonaligned and a staunch ally of various Third World liberation movements, Palme’s Sweden also maintained friendly relations with NATO countries and was seen by some as an unofficial member of the bloc. Whatever Sweden’s relationship to NATO, the Ustaša, South African intelligence, far-right forces in the Swedish Security Service, and petty-bourgeois insurance-company employees all harbored a great deal of hatred for Palme. Thus, all of the above seemed to be entirely plausible culprits in the murder.

Today, the investigation is led by the ironically named Krister Peterson, who has turned away from various “theories” and shifted the focus toward hard evidence found at the scene of the crime. Peterson has announced that he will close the case by summer 2020.

Many will not be content with such an outcome, even if a resolution is presented. But what we can at least hope is that this compels the Left to finally move beyond its past glories — and build a new internationalism that future generations can be proud of.