One Winter’s Night

Gunnar Pettersson

  • Death of a Statesman: The Solution to the Murder of Olof Palme by Ruth Freeman
    Hale, 205 pp, £12.95, March 1989, ISBN 0 7090 3698 1

Facts are hard to come by in the Olof Palme case. On the corner of Sveavägen-Tunnelgatan in central Stockholm, at 21 minutes past 11 p.m. on 28 February 1986, the Swedish Prime Minister was shot dead with a Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum. Despite the number of eye-witnesses, 23 in all, no more is known about the murderer than that he was dressed in dark clothes and escaped by the Tunnelgatan alleyway.

More than three years later everything else remains circumstance, hypothesis and conspiracy theory. Two Ministers of Justice as well as a number of public prosecutors and police investigators have resigned in the wake of the affair. The official investigation has been investigated by investigators who were themselves subsequently investigated. The Constitutional Committee of the Swedish Parliament is on permanent stand-by to look into allegations of every brand of official misconduct, from the unlawful bugging of senior politicians to the passing of classified information to unauthorised people in return for sexual favours. Meanwhile the Bofors arms-smuggling affair keeps unravelling; hostile submarines patrol the Swedish coastline seemingly at will and always manage to clear out in the nick of time; a convicted spy escapes to the Soviet Union while on weekend leave from prison, under cover of a new name approved by the Swedish Government.

In view of the general panic which seems to have gripped Swedish political life since the assassination, it would be unfair to heap all the blame for failing to catch the murderer on the official police investigation alone. Undoubtedly it has been hampered by endless internal squabbles, as well as by incompetence on such a scale as to seem intentional at times: but the fact remains that from the moment the killer disappeared into the wintry darkness the Palme case became extraordinarily complex. Practically everything that is known is open to interpretation – particularly as regards the motive, since so many individuals and groups can be said to have had one. The ‘Mad Swede’ hypothesis sees the murderer as a disgruntled loner who bears a grudge against society general and against Olof Palme in particular.

During his lifetime Palme was not only the generally admired statesman and humanitarian but also the target for a visceral right-wing hatred – due in part to his personal appearance, urbanity and arrogance, in part to a perceived discrepancy between his upper-class background and his radical politics (cf. Tony Benn), and in part to persistent accusations and rumours that he was soft on the Russians, if not a KGB mole. But, critics have asked, would a lone madman susceptible to violent anti-Palme feelings carry out the murder with such apparent coolness and efficiency, much less refrain from boasting about it and eventually giving himself away? Whatever the answer, it has to remain qualified for the time being. After four months in custody, a 42-year-old derelict and petty criminal is finally – and, for some, surprisingly – to be charged with the murder. The trial is due to start in May, but serious doubts remain as to whether the evidence thus far mobilised against him – all of it circumstantial – is strong enough to secure a conviction. If the last three years have proved anything at all, it is that hope triumphs over experience with depressing consistency.

Conspiracy theories live and die by the gaps in the official version of events, by the number of questions that have not been, or cannot be, answered satisfactorily. In the Palme case, most of the gaps and unanswered questions go to make up a particularly controversial hypothesis, which stubbornly refuses to go away. It is that Palme could have been killed by (or with the full knowledge and co-operation of) a group of extreme right-wing elements within the Norrmalm District of the Stockholm Metropolitan Police, where the murder took place, as well as within the Security Police (Säpo), who were the only ones to know beforehand that Palme was without bodyguards that night. Attention has particularly focused on a notorious group of Norrmalm police officers known as the ‘Baseball Gang’, a now disbanded anti-drug unit who roamed the streets of central Stockholm wielding baseball bats some years ago and were frequently accused of brutality, even murder. Suspicions of a police conspiracy to kill the Prime Minister relate to four main clusters of unanswered questions, all to do with events in the immediate area around Sveavägen before, during and after the shooting.

First, eye-witness reports have shown that more than thirty policemen were on the surrounding streets during the minutes before the murder happened. Several were on foot carrying walkie-talkies, others in police cars and vans, and when their reported positions are placed on a map of Stockholm it turns out that they form a circle around the spot where Palme was killed. No explanation has ever been given for their presence there at the time. Secondly, there is the controversy over the exact time at which the so-called ‘area alert’ went out on police radio: i.e. the message alerting all police units within central Stockholm following the first reports of the murder. The official version says 23.23, a mere two minutes after the shots rang out. This is strongly denied by the first policeman on the spot, Chief Inspector Gösta Söderström, who happened to be passing and claims that it did not go out until 23.29, one minute before he arrived on the scene.

This is a crucial detail, because if Söderström is right it confirms the suspicion that the time has been deliberately altered, not only to make the Police appear more efficient in their response than they actually were, but also to conceal the fact that the assassin was given some five to six minutes’ safe passage to reach his get-away car. That suspicion is further strengthened by the third incident: the mysterious and far too early appearance of Police Unit 1520 along the escape route no more than two minutes after the shots. The two policemen travelling in the car originally claimed that they had reacted to the area alert and were trying to cut off the killer’s escape. This was shown to be physically impossible given the time and their previous position some kilometres away, nor was it borne out by their remarkable failure to stop and interview an eye-witness who came towards them in pursuit of the murderer. It is suggested that they were there to protect the escape route, not cut it off. Fourthly, the incident which can be said to have started it all, when the television producer Lars Krantz and a Stockholm bus driver reported, independently of one another, the strange and agitated behaviour of two men boarding the No 43 bus some streets away about ten minutes after the murder. Both Krantz and the driver subsequently identified them as two of the most notorious bruisers from the Baseball Gang. The policemen denied that they were there at the time and, along with their two colleagues in Police Unit 1520, recently brought a suit for gross defamation against a left-wing weekly which had published their names and photographs. The trial was held at the end of April and resulted in a conviction on a minority of the 62 counts. If the verdict is upheld by a committee of jurists, the publisher could be imprisoned and an award of £140,000 made to the plaintiffs. The outcome was perhaps not very surprising in view of the fact that the senior official investigators, past and present, who were subpoenaed as defence witnesses gave little or nothing away that related to the alleged conspiracy and cover-up. Instead they pleaded lack of memory and professed themselves unwilling to go into ‘technical details’ – all of which did nothing but add grist to the Police conspiracy theorists’ mill.

One of the witnesses was Hans Holmer. He is the former Chief of the Stockholm Police District and a Social Democrat: a protégé of Palme’s who, displaying a great taste for publicity, headed the official investigation until his spectacular downfall in February 1987. Despite the fact that it led to his disgrace, Holmer remains an influential proponent of the ‘Kurdish hypothesis’, claiming that the Workers’ Party of Kurdistan organised and carried out the murder. The PKK is a militant group of mainly Turkish Kurds who went into exile in West Germany and Sweden following the 1980 military coup in Turkey. Sweden – the only other country apart from Turkey itself to do so – declared the PKK a ‘terrorist organisation’ in 1985, a fact which in Holmer’s eyes gave them a strong motive to kill the Prime Minister in revenge. There can be no doubt that the PKK has committed several brutal murders of defectors from their cause, in Sweden and elsewhere, but again only circumstantial evidence – and not much of that, either – has been produced to show that they were able and willing to go for a target so completely out of their league. Indeed, the allegation seemed to be definitively compromised in January 1987 when, on Holmer’s orders, 26 Kurds were arrested in dawn raids across Sweden and not a scrap of evidence was found. Holmer had to go, but the Kurdish hypothesis has, nonetheless, been pursued further by a group of pseudo-government investigators headed by the publisher Ebbe Carlsson – the ‘Swedish Oliver North’ and a close personal friend of Holmer’s. So far, there have been no known results of their efforts – apart from their getting caught trying to smuggle illegal bugging equipment into Sweden last summer. That started a series of allegations and counter-allegations whizzing through the air, while the buck is being frantically passed in what has become the tragicomical entertainment of the televised hearings of the Constitutional Committee.

However, if Olof Palme was murdered on behalf of a foreign power (or power grouping), it would seem at least possible that the solution could be found in the Middle East. Palme’s role as UN peace negotiator in the Gulf War, together with recent evidence of his having acted simultaneously and covertly on behalf of Swedish arms exporters, presents a likely political backdrop to his assassination – although it can be argued that the likelihood is based on no more than the convenient obscurity and unpredictability of Middle Eastern power politics in general. Two writers appearing under the pseudonym Ruth Freeman now claim to have located the solution, if not the murderer, in one of the most obscure and unpredictable places of all – the Mukhabarat, a branch of the Iraqi secret service dealing with opponents to the Hussein regime.

The story begins in January 1985, when Majed Husain, a former captain in the Mukhabarat who had sought political asylum in Sweden, was butchered into 57 pieces and the remains were found in a wood south of Stockholm. The Police established that three Iraqi agents were involved, one of them a woman who had befriended Husain. She and one of her accomplices had entered Sweden on diplomatic passports and could be shown to have connections with the Iraqi Embassy in Stockholm. According to Freeman, the Police – and particularly Säpo – urged the Government to deliver a strong official protest to Iraq, preferably accompanied by the expulsion of two senior Embassy staff said to be involved in the case. Instead the Government did nothing and Säpo’s frustration turned to fury when, in mid-February 1986, the Swedish Foreign Trade Minister went to Baghdad and failed even to mention the Husain affair.

In this context, Freeman reproduces three letters addressed to the Foreign Ministry purportedly written by Holger Romander, then Chief of the National Police Board. In the last of these letters Romander complains of Iraq’s ‘interpreting this lack of any Swedish reaction as approval of the Iraqi action in respect of the murder of Husain’. At this point doubts must be raised as to the credibility of Freeman’s book. Apart from a probably genuine court order for the arrest of the Iraqi woman agent, the three Romander letters make up the only documentary evidence produced in the book, and there is good reason to believe that they are forgeries. In statements to the press, Holger Romander denies ever having written them, and the Foreign Ministry denies ever having received them. Neither seem to have any plausible reason to lie, and besides, the present climate in Sweden makes it most unlikely that the truth would remain hidden for very long. Furthermore, official letters of this kind are invariably countersigned by the immediately subordinate official on whose report the letter is based – in this case, presumably the head of Säpo – and none of the letters bear countersignatures. Besides which, they contain a couple of grammatical and stylistical howlers which would be quite inconceivable in the genre of the higher Swedish officialese.

Now, according to Freeman, Säpo showed such determination in trying to bring the killers of Majed Husain to book that the head of the Mukhabarat, Fahdel Barrak, decided that something drastic had to be done lest the whole affair blow up and smash the secret Iraqi network in Sweden. The solution was, in Freeman’s version, obvious: ‘Only the assassination of Palme could be guaranteed to divert the security forces utterly from their dangerous obsession with the Majed Husain affair, and the removal of the UN mediator would be a welcome bonus.’ Since Freeman presents no evidence whatsoever for the claim that Iraqi agents soon afterwards murdered Palme, one can only test the allegation on the strength of its probability. Two objections spring immediately to mind. It would seem quite absurd for the presumably cunning head of the Mukhabarat, or for any one else, to try and conceal a ‘little’ murder with a ‘big’ one, especially if one has everything to fear from a doggedly determined security service. And it is difficult to see that the removal of Palme would have done Iraq any good at all. At that point in their war, early 1986, Iran had broken through in an important sector of the front and Iraq was on the defensive, eager to avail itself of Palme’s services as UN mediator. To have murdered him would have been suicide.

All in all, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Death of a Statesman is not what it claims to be, which begs the question: is it misinformation or disinformation? Only the last third of the book is devoted to the ‘solution’ mentioned in the title, while the preceding section is taken up with an account of the Palme murder and the investigation until late 1988. At least 80 per cent of it presents the main characters in ‘paraphrased’ dialogue, which is a singularly unhappy form for a subject of this complexity – especially cumbersome when characters have to have explained to them circumstances they could hardly be unaware of. There are also numerous inaccuracies. Freeman claims that Palme was shot from the front. Despite the fact that the postmortem report remains classified, it is no great secret that he was shot from the back. It is incredible of the authors to suggest that Stockholm Police Radio Centre received the first report of the murder at 23.21, less than sixty seconds after the shots rang out, which does not tally even with the most optimistic estimates of the official investigation. Perhaps more significantly, Säpo – or a faction of it – appear throughout the account as the frustrated professionals who, given half a chance, could do the job in a week. That is about as far from recognisable reality as it is possible to get. On the other hand, it is also claimed that Säpo has been in control of the investigation since Holmer’s resignation. The point about the events of February 1987 is that control was once and for all passed over to the public prosecutors – to whom, incidentally, it belongs by law. Among the minor errors is the claim that the present Prime Minister, Ingvar Carlsson, was Minister of Finance at the time. He was, literally, ‘Minister of the Future’ in charge of research and long-term planning.

On the whole, I would plump for ‘disinformation’, although on whose behalf it has been disseminated is difficult to assess. It could be what Freeman admiringly describes as ‘the quiet men in Säpo’; it could be any one of a number of interested parties attempting to discredit Iraq. We cannot know, since Ruth Freeman for reasons of personal safety has to remain anonymous and her claims beyond further scrutiny. For all the risks the authors are apparently taking, it is a pity that their book has not made the waters any less muddy.