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REMEMBERING OLOF PALME

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Unsolved Palme murder still hurts after 25 years

Twenty-five years after Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme was gunned down in central Stockholm, many Swedes still consider the murder an open wound, the AFP's Nina Larsson discovers.

Unsolved Palme murder still hurts after 25 years

Twenty-five years have passed since Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme was gunned down on an icy sidewalk in central Stockholm, but with no end to the probe in sight, the murder remains an open wound in Sweden.

“It has been a very long time since it happened, but at the same time, it feels like it is still very close,” says Joakim Palme, who was 27 when his father was shot and killed on February 28, 1986.

“It is very difficult that there has never been any judicial end point, or closure,” he told AFP.

Behind a red, double-vaulted door several floors underground in the Stockholm police headquarters, 225 metres of bookcases that line the concrete walls filled with 3,600 folders make up the archives on the investigation so far into the murder.

According to Stig Edqvist, who has led the Palme murder investigation for the past 14 years, around 130 people have confessed to the crime and some 450 guns have been test shot to see if they match two bullets found at the scene.

Hundreds of thousands of tips have come in over the years and a handful keep coming in each week on the case, which would have been filed away for good Monday if Sweden last year had not scrapped its 25-year statute of limitations on murder.

“We have to be realistic. After 25 years, it is obviously a difficult case to solve, but I still hope we will manage,” Edqvist says standing between rows of neatly tagged brown cardboard folders.

Gunnar Wall, a journalist who has written two books about the case, is harsh in his assessment.

“After 25 years of investigating this, basically we still know nothing,” he laments.

Palme did not have a bodyguard with him on the night he and his wife Lisbeth were walking along the busy Sveavägen towards their home in the Old Town after a spontaneous trip to a downtown Stockholm cinema.

A gunman came up from behind and shot him twice in the back. Lisbeth was also grazed by a bullet.

The man ran off, taking his .357 Magnum revolver with him and leaving Palme in a pool of blood on the snow-covered sidewalk at the corner of what has since been renamed Olof Palme Street. The gun has never been recovered.

The murder sent shockwaves through Sweden, which is often said to have “lost its innocence” that day.

“The murder changed the way we perceive politicians,” says Jens Orback, the head of the Olof Palme International Centre.

“Olof Palme said once he wanted to be listed in the telephone catalogue just like everyone else… to connect with people without being encircled by guards. But as we have seen, that is not always possible,” he tells AFP.

That trauma of Palme’s murder was relived again in 2003 when Sweden’s hugely popular foreign minister Anna Lindh was stabbed to death while shopping — also without bodyguards — at a Stockholm department store by a man with a history of mental illness.

“A certain innocence has been lost,” says Wall, pointing out that “people no longer expect as much from police or the courts.”

The Palme investigation was a mess from the start.

“A lot went wrong,” acknowledges Edqvist, pointing out that the attempts to cordon off the murder scene “were ridiculous.”

News footage from the time shows shocked and crying onlookers crowded almost within touching distance of the red-stained snow, with a mountain of roses towering nearby.

Then there was the politically-connected police chief with no experience investigating murder initially placed in charge of the probe.

“I think the government wanted him in charge because they were worried sensitive information would emerge,” Wall says, pointing out that “Palme was very controversial.”

A left-wing activist in his youth, Palme infuriated Washington with his outspoken criticism of the US war in Vietnam.

He backed communist governments in Cuba and Nicaragua, spoke out against apartheid and nuclear power, and advocated redistribution of wealth, and some charged he was paving the way for a Soviet invasion of Sweden.

Investigators suspected the Turkish Kurd rebel group PKK, the Swedish military and police and the South African secret service, but were accused of dragging their feet on leads that could damage Palme’s reputation, including the possible connection to his role in a major weapons deal between Swedish company Bofors and the Indian army.

Palme’s family meanwhile remain convinced they know who did it.

Christer Pettersson, a petty criminal and an alcoholic and drug addict, was identified by Palme’s widow in a widely-criticised line-up nearly three years after the murder, and was convicted of the crime in July 1989.

He was however set free months later by an appeals court due to lacking evidence, and the Supreme Court never agreed to hear the case against Pettersson, who suddenly died in 2004.

“I myself am convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that it was Christer Pettersson,” Joakim Palme tells AFP, saying of all the disappointments in the case, he is most upset that the courts failed to convict Pettersson.

“It is devastating that no one was ever punished for such a serious crime,” he says.

AFPs Nina Larsson

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OLOF PALME

Analysis: What does the Olof Palme news actually mean for Sweden?

Sweden may never know for sure who killed Prime Minister Olof Palme in 1986, but perhaps it is time to move on, writes The Local's editor Emma Löfgren.

Analysis: What does the Olof Palme news actually mean for Sweden?
A rose left on Wednesday at the spot where Olof Palme was shot. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

For 34 years, the unsolved murder of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme has been nothing short of an open wound in Sweden, and it has given rise to numerous conspiracy theories over the years.

Today, the long-running murder investigation ended, as chief prosecutor Krister Petersson revealed who he thinks held the gun: Stig Engström, an advertising consultant for insurance company Skandia, who disliked Palme and had access to weapons, but had never previously featured among the prominent suspects.

More than 130 people have confessed to killing Palme, more than 600 million kronor is estimated to have been spent on the case. It's been the biggest news story for 34 years, and it ended with a whimper.

To me, it feels surreal.

My mum was pregnant with me when Palme was killed, so I obviously don't have any of my own memories of the early days of the investigation – botched from the start as investigators tried to turn dead ends into leads.

But it has nevertheless been a major part of my life, and everyone else's life in Sweden. If you're old enough, you will always remember where you were when you first heard that the prime minister had been killed. But even if you're not, there has been no escaping the ghost of the Palme probe over the past three decades.

When I moved to Stockholm five years ago, there were so many place names that I really only associated with the murder – the hospital where the ambulance brought him, the cinema where he and his wife Lisbet spent the evening, the mystery shooter's escape route down Tunnelgatan, up the steps and into the night.

Every once in a while, there has been a new story in Swedish tabloid, a new theory for the large number of hobby detectives investigating the murder to get their teeth into, a new anniversary as the years pass by.

And now, the case is closed.

The suspect is dead, so there will never be a trial. We will never know what he would have told a court, we may never know whether he acted alone (Petersson thinks that he did, but also said that a wider conspiracy could not be ruled out). He will never be able to clear his name and a court will never be able to convict him.

As Petersson told today's press conference – a two-hour study in Swedish bureaucratic use of powerpoint presentations that took us down the long and winding road of the 34-year-old murder investigation – he as the prosecutor needs only enough evidence to bring a suspect to court, which will not happen in this case.

But that is not the same as a conviction.

Hopes were dashed today when no new forensic evidence – or indeed any forensic evidence at all – was presented, with the prosecutor basing the case on a series of incriminating, but circumstantial, factors.


Stig Engström claimed to have been a key witness at the scene of the murder. Photo: SVT/TT

Stig Engström, also known as “the Skandia man”, was questioned as a witness back in the 80s and was interviewed in the media several times. But when his witness statements did not add up, he was fairly rapidly dismissed as an unreliable attention-seeker who was simply trying to overstate his own importance.

Petersson took his time to go through a long list of evidence: that Engström's clothes matched descriptions of the killer, that no other witness on the scene was able to back up Engström's own claims of his contributions or even remember him, and that many of Engström's own movements that night matched those of the killer.

You would not normally name a deceased accused, but Petersson clearly felt an obligation to offer as thorough a presentation as possible to give Swedes an explanation they can come to terms with.

But there was no smoking gun, not even in the literal sense. Rumours that a murder weapon had been found proved insubstantial. Nothing new was presented on Wednesday – many parts of the claims of evidence against Engström had already been listed at length by journalist Thomas Pettersson in the magazine Filter in 2018. Today mostly felt like a recap of what had previously been hashed out in Swedish media.


Chief police investigator Hans Melander and chief prosecutor Krister Petersson at the press conference. Photo: Polisen/TT

I asked Petersson whether he thought the public would accept his conclusions.

He said he believed he had taken the investigation as far as it could go, but added: “I am not so stupid I don't understand that different conspiracy theories will keep afloat in the public domain the way they have done over the past 34 years. But we have a conclusion that we feel that we can stand behind.”

Palme's widow Lisbet always stuck by her original testimony, where she pointed out another man as the killer. But Palme's three sons today said that although they were disappointed with the lack of forensic evidence, they believed that prosecutor Petersson had presented a convincing case, and accepted his conclusions.

That's not a court verdict either, but perhaps his family's calm acceptance can help the rest of us find closure.

I think a lot of people in Sweden will feel a sense of disappointment today; we had all been hoping for more, for a conclusive answer. But there may also be a sense of relief. After 34 years, perhaps it is time to move on.

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