A case that will not die

April 20 1987

A case that will not die

April 20 1987

A case that will not die


The theories about who shot Olof Palme—voiced at dinner tables throughout Sweden—are varied and inventive. According to one, officials of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, eager to prevent the left-wing Swedish prime minister from becoming the next United Nations secretary general, hired the assassin who shot him on the evening of Feb. 28, 1986. According to another, Palme was the victim of wealthy expatriate Swedes so angered by their country’s socialist tax system that they decided to take bloody revenge. Such macabre speculations are a sign of the Swedish public’s continuing preoccupation with the assassination. But they are also an indication of public frustration: more than a year after Palme’s death, his murder remains unsolved.

The gunman who shot Palme, 59, on Stockholm’s bustling Sveavagan Street as the prime minister and his wife were walking home from a Fridaynight movie left no physical traces except for the two bullets he fired. The police have investigated every possibility, even the suggestion that Palme, a United Nations mediator in the IranIraq war until 1983, could have been killed by Iranian agents for cutting off illegal Swedish arms shipments to Iran in 1985. But the authorities’ impotence in solving the murder has been deeply disturbing to the people of a country long known as an example of peaceful consensus. And the emotional imprint of the grisly act on Sweden’s citizens will likely be a lasting one.

The bungled police work which has outraged Swedes finally provoked the government to appoint a parliamentary commission of inquiry on March 19 to determine what went wrong—more than a year after Palme bled to death in hospital from one of the two bullets. The first policeman on the scene reportedly spent 15 minutes pressing a tearful Lisbeth Palme, kneeling beside her husband and grazed from the other bullet, for concrete identification. Then, after Palme was finally taken to Stockholm’s Sabbatsberg Hospital, a heavy police detail was assigned to guard him even though the prime minister died shortly after arrival. Only a handful of policemen was immediately sent to the murder site to gather evidence.

It also took authorities 90 minutes

after the murder to assign military officials and top security personnel to monitor the roads and bridges outside the city. The two bullets fired at Palme were located not by policemen but by passersby —one of whom claimed he found the bullet during a trance.

In the frantic struggle to find the killer public attention quickly focussed on one man: Hans Holmèr, then Stockholm’s police commissioner. Holmèr was immediately likened by the media to U.S. action-movie star Clint Eastwood after he took personal control of the Palme investigation the morning after the murder. In the succeeding weeks he was seen regularly on televised news conferences. But the public’s initial love affair with Holmèr faded as most of his self-proclaimed “results” quickly lost their validity. Among them: Holmèr’s claim shortly after the murder that the bullets fired at Palme had probably been handmade by a weapons specialist. Reporters quickly produced boxes of similar bullets—easily acquired from a Stockholm sporting goods store.

Still, Holmèr appeared at first to make rapid progress. On March 12, less than two weeks after the assassination, Swedes were clearly encouraged by the arrest of a suspect, 33year-old Ake Gunnarsson. But shortly

after, Gunnarsson, a right-wing Swede and once a follower of U.S. extremist Lyndon Larouche, was released by then-state prosecutor K.G. Svensson because numerous witnesses, including Palme’s widow, failed to identify him in police lineups. In May,

1986, Gunnarsson was again arrested —and again released. At that time Svensson resigned, claiming that Holmèr had been uncooperative about sharing information.

Holmèr then turned his attention to members of the MarxistLeninist Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) in Sweden, a small and violent organization of Kurdish refugees agitating for an independent homeland in eastern Turkey. In 1983,

Palme’s government had denied an entry visa to the party’s leader who was living in Damascus, Syria. Soon after, two former PKK members were murdered in Sweden. Two PKK stalwarts were subsequently convicted for the homicides. That, as well as the Palme government’s designation of the group

as a terrorist organization in 1983, may have provided a motive for the prime minister’s murder, according to police.

Early on the morning of Jan. 20, Holmer moved against his suspects. In a series of dawn raids, Swedish police rounded up 20 men—most of them Kurds. But by the end of the day chief prosecutor Claes Zeime, Svensson’s successor, ordered the suspects released for lack of evidence.

Zeime was openly critical of Holmèr’s investigation. The prosecutor called Holmèr’s surveillance of the PKK “worthless,” and charged that the police chief’s obsession with the Kurds had resulted in other potential leads being ignored. Holmèr responded by accusing Zeime of sabotaging the investigation. But by then, after almost a year of seemingly fruitless investigation, the police commissioner had clearly lost his credibility. On Feb. 4, the government, led by Ingvar Carlsson, intervened, re-

lieving Holmèr of the investigation.

Since then, with few solid leads to follow, Swedes have concentrated on the latest murder theory. Last month, in a New York Times Magazine article that sparked heated debate in the Swedish parliament, U.S. political journalist Richard Reeves speculated that Palme’s murder may have been linked to secret Swedish arms shipments to Iran. The shipments—by Swedish armaments manufacturer Bofors Group to Tehran in contravention of Sweden’s law that prohibits arms sales to “war zones”—came to light in 1985. Eight Bofors directors now face charges of illegally exporting explosives. Palme, a former UN mediator in the Persian Gulf War between Iran and Iraq, may have angered the Iranians when he officially stopped the shipments and initiated a government inquiry into the sales after the scandal broke.

At the same time, the Swedish government has itself been implicated in the arms sales. With weapons sales making up as much as five per cent of Sweden’s $45-billion worth of annual exports, some Swedes say that members of the government must have been aware of the sales. Indeed, Reeves reported that the country’s foreign ministry may have actively tried to stymie the investigation into Palme’s

murder—probably for fear that any government involvement might come to light. According to Reeves, one official told him: “The truth about the murder? Most of the people in the government don’t want it. It would be disastrous for the foreign ministry if people knew how stupid we have been in the Gulf.”

Since Holmer’s dismissal, police have continued to appeal for witnesses to the murder to come forward. But apart from recent testimony that a man was seen lurking about the Stockholm theatre shortly before Palme’s death, police officials have acknowledged that they have little to work on. Indeed, as the trail of the killer grows colder, they have started to scale down the investigation. Meanwhile, people still lay roses on the patch of pavement where Palme lay dying. And in a country that has never been a target of terrorism, and where only 145 murders were committed in 1986—compared with 1,600 in New York City—Palme’s violent death continues to haunt citizens. “We believed we were immune from many of the world’s troubles,” said 34-year-old Stockholm resident Gunnar Eriksson. “Our innocence has been destroyed.”