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The Murder of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme

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Yesterday, Sunday, February 28, marked the 35th anniversary of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme’s 1986 death in Stockholm, Sweden. Olof Palme was assassinated at 11:21 p.m. local time with a single bullet through his body. He was walking home without his security detail together with his wife, Lisbet Palme, after having seen The Mozart Brothers (1986) at the cinema Grand.

Photo by Flickr user Per Olof Forsberg, of Olof Palme’s Plaque, used under attribution license

Olof Palme was a polarizing figure in Swedish politics during his life. He was both loved and hated in equal measure. Among other things, Palme was prime minister during the Swedish bank robbery (Normalmstorgsdramat) of 1973, which led to the coining of the phrase “Stockholm syndrome,” and reportedly told the female bank teller, Kristin Enmark, that “wouldn′t it be nice to die at your post.”

[Krister Wickman and Olof Palme], Sveriges socialdemokratiska arbetareparti, sponsor/advertiser, [between 1965 and 1980.Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,
Background and Conspiracy Theories

When Palme died, the Swedish police, as well as Swedish public, were convinced that it was the result of a conspiracy. Over the years, many theories have been put forward. For example, an early theory was that Palme was murdered by the South African Apartheid regime over a speech he gave prior to his murder. Another theory concerns Kurdish rebels. While these theories involved groups of people believed to have a motive for killing Palme, no concrete evidence could tie them to the scene of the crime. With only limited forensic evidence (the murder bullet) and diverging witness testimonies, it was all but impossible to find sufficient proof for anyone to be successfully charged and tried in court. That does not mean the prosecutor has not tried.

In 1989, Christer Petterson, a known alcoholic who had previously been convicted of manslaughter, was convicted by the Stockholm District Court for Palme’s murder. The three lay judges (nämndemän) voted to convict, whereas the two law judges wanted to acquit. Later that same year, Petterson was acquitted on appeal to the Svea Hovrätt (Svea Court of Appeals.) But Palme’s widow Lisbet, until her death in 2018, maintained that Petterson was the man she saw on the night of the murder, after identifying him in a line-up. In 1998, the prosecutor petitioned the Swedish Supreme Court to re-hear the case, citing new witness testimony, but the Supreme Court declined to hear the case. Other than Lisbet’s testimony, there was no other evidence to tie Petterson directly to the crime scene.

Another early suspect arrested for the murder was right-wing Palme critic Viktor Gunnarsson, who never faced trial. He was later killed by his girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend in North Carolina. The defense in Gunnarson’s murder unsuccessfully claimed that Gunnarsson had been murdered because of his involvement with the Palme murder.

Other theories, put forward range from the idea that it was a family drama involving Lisbet and/or her son Mårten, a planned attack by the security police, and one theory even suggested that the whole murder was staged and that Palme was not actually killed at all. None of these theories appear to have been further investigated or deemed credible by the police and prosecutor.

In 2017, a new lead prosecutor, Krister Peterson, was appointed to lead the Palme investigation. In early 2020, Krister Peterson announced that he would present a solution to the Palme murder and either charge someone or close the investigation. On June 10, 2020, prosecutor Peterson presented his theory. Expectations of a solution were high as earlier that same week a cold case from 2004 was solved with the use of DNA and genealogy. But that case involved evidence lacking in the Palme murder case, namely an identified murder weapon and DNA from the suspected murderer.

The Palme investigation announcement was underwhelming. The police announced they were closing the investigation as the believed murderer, Stig Engström, had been dead for twenty years and the prosecution saw no way forward in the investigation. Specifically, they stated: “We can’t get around a certain individual as the murderer.” “That individual is Stig Engström.”  And “We have come as far as can be expected.”

However, a small study of Swedes reactions to the announcement showed that the people were not convinced that Engström was the murderer. Only 20% of respondents thought that it was likely that he was the murderer.

The theory of Stig Engström (then described as Skandiamannen) as the Palme murderer was extensively examined in 2018 in a series of articles in the magazine Filter, titled the “Den Osannolika Mördaren (the Unlikely Murderer), by Thomas Petterson. The Unlikely Murderer is set to become a limited series in 2021.

Identification of a Deceased Suspect

The identification of Stig Engström, originally known only as the ”Skandiamannen” in public, has resulted in a number of legal questions.

Prosecutor Krister Peterson himself recognized that naming someone as Palme’s murderer qualifies as defamation of a deceased person (Förtal av avliden) (5 kap. 4 § Brottsbalken (SFS 1962:700)), but that because of the circumstances in the case, the length of time since the suspect died, and the great public interest, he argued that it was nevertheless not a criminal act. According to a news report, Krister Peterson said that:

Strictly objectively speaking it is a matter of defamation of the deceased on my part, it is undoubtedly so. The legislation includes also some other parts which are relevant. That is, if there is a great public interest and I can show reasonable grounds for my claim it is not defamation of the deceased. The public interest need no further explanation, and I believe that what I have presented [here today] gives me reasonable grounds for the claim that I am making. Therefore, I do not think it is a criminal act that he is named. (translation by author.)

For more on defamation of a deceased, see below.

Despite his assurance that the naming was legal, many individuals chose to report the statement as defamation of a deceased.

The Justitieombudsmannen (JO) (Parliamentary Ombudsmen) has also proceeded to request that the police justify the naming of the suspect. An answer was due in November of last year but a final determination by the JO has not yet been published.

Another issue that quickly surfaced as a result of Engström being named as the murderer, especially among journalists and die-hard Palme laymen investigators, was what information pertaining to Stig Engström from the criminal investigation could now be considered public? And what statements made about Stig Engstrom could fall under the crime defamation of the deceased?

What Information on Stig Engström May Be Produced?

Under Swedish law, information is public unless covered by a specific ground for secrecy. (2 ch. 2 § Tryckfrihetsförordningen (TF) [Constitution] (SFS 1949:105).) The most common ground for secrecy of otherwise public documents is to protect personal information about an individual or a person close to the individual (närstående). (35 ch. 1 § Offentlighets- och sekretesslag (2009:400).)

In December 2020, the Administrative Court of Appeals in Stockholm (Kammarrätten i Stockholm) issued a judgment (Case No. 5005-20, 5077-20, and 5079-20, on file with author) where it explained the secrecy test for publicly-held documents that applies to persons who are deceased, and specifically to Stig Engström. Unlike persons who are alive, a deceased person’s personal information is presumed to be public. It is presumed not to be hurtful. Whereas information about a deceased that could cause harm to a närstående  (person close to the deceased) is presumed to be secret. Thus, the police in determining what information/documents to produce must first evaluate if the information pertains to a deceased person, and if so if that deceased person has any close relatives or friends, närstående, that may be hurt by the information becoming public.

Persons who are assumed to be närstående are immediate family members, parents, siblings, and persons who live together in a sexual relationship. Also, non-cohabiting life partners, friends, and relatives may be närstående, depending on their relationship with the deceased. But this evaluation must be made on a case-by-case basis.

The Administrative Court of Appeals determined that Stig Engström, who was divorced at the time of his death, does not have any living relatives or friends that qualify as närstående. The court in particular noted that both his brother and mother are dead. Thus, any information regarding Stig Engström alone is presumed to be public, unless the information would deprive him of the peace to which a deceased person has a right. In making this determination, the police should especially consider that Stig Engström has been dead for more than 20 years.

However, documents that also contain information on other persons, such as the joint holdings of Stig Engström and his ex-wife during their marriage, are subject to secrecy protection as Engström’s ex-wife is still alive and her annual income is personal information. Engströms’s own annual income, and other financial information, including any debts registered with the Swedish Enforcement Authority, are public. Thus, the court held that the police must take greater care in assessing what information they are obliged to produce under the long-standing constitutional right to public documents.

Defamation of Deceased

Press freedom is protected in Sweden, and most information may be published. (Tryckfrihetsförordningen (TF) [Constitution] (SFS 1949:105).) However, even if true, certain information may be considered defamation of a deceased person (Förtal av avliden). (5 kap. 4 § Brottsbalken (SFS 1962:700.) Specifically,

Defamation of a deceased person is punishable in accordance with 1 § [defamation] or 2 § [aggravated defamation], if the act is hurtful to the surviving family and friend, or otherwise, in consideration of the time that has passed since the deceased was alive, as well as the overall circumstances, may be considered to violate the peace that should be afforded to the deceased. (translation by author.)

Olof Palme’s family, for instance, has claimed defamation of a deceased. In 2012, Mikael Marcimain produced a film named Call Girl creating a fictional dramatization that was allegedly not based on, but very similar to, the bordellhärvan (Brothel Mess) or Geijeraffären (Geijer Scandal). During the 1970s, a Swedish woman operated a call-girl network with many powerful customers, including Olof Palme’s justice minister Lennart Geijer. The woman was arrested and sentenced. Several of her girls were allegedly under-aged, and at least one was aged 14, i.e. under the legal age of sexual consent, with whom sexual relations would constitute fornication with children, and be punishable with up to two years imprisonment. In the movie, the names are changed, but in the original version of the film the prime minister has sexual relations with the 14-year old. Representatives of Palme’s family sent a letter to the director advising them that they would seek prosecution for defamation of the deceased. However, the Justitiekanslern (JK) (Chancellor of Justice) decided not to bring the case. The scene was nevertheless cut and no further legal challenges were brought by the Palme family.

The two girls themselves had brought a damage suit against the Swedish state in 2007, but the court determined that the claim had been brought too late and that it was covered by the ten year statute of limitations.

Could You Solve the Murder Mystery?

For anyone who wishes to solve the murder, there is plenty of material to weed through. Countless police hours have been spent on the case, and the cost of the criminal investigation is estimated to be SEK 600 million (about US$71 million). More than 100 individuals have claimed responsibility for the crime. The material part of the criminal investigation includes more than 60,000 documents, and more than 250 meters of shelf space. According to the police website, ordering copies of all documents would cost about SEK 1 million (US$118,000). While most material is only available in hard copy, and much is still covered by secrecy protections, digital access is growing and reportedly 2% of the entire Palme investigation has been digitalized by private groups. Swedish Television (SVT) has also made some of their historic reporting connected to the murder available in its open archive (Öppet Arkiv).

If you wish to read more about the conspiracy theories related to Olof Palme’s murder, here are some of the many titles you can find in the Library’s catalog. These include Thomas Petterson’s Den Osannolika Mördaren from 2018.

If you have a question about law in Sweden you can always send us a message through the Ask a Librarian feature on our website.

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