Who killed Olof Palme?

Sweden's prime minister Olof Palme was gunned down in Stockholm on 28 February 1986. As new evidence is considered more than 30 years after the crime, we revisit this 2006 article from BBC History Magazine in which Jan Bondeson goes in search of the culprit

Funeral of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme

Who was Olof Palme?

Olof Palme (1927–86) was elected to the Riksdag, the Swedish parliament, in 1956. He first became prime minister in 1969. He was a campaigner for the working classes and Third World causes, and worked for peace and an end to the war in Vietnam. He was serving his third term as leader when he was murdered. He believed in open government and often went out without his bodyguards in Stockholm.

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A cataclysmic event in Swedish history

The unsolved murder of Prime Minister Olof Palme, on 28 February 1986, was a cataclysmic event in Swedish history. It shocked the nation profoundly, making an impact in Sweden akin to the reverberations that ran across America after the 1963 murder of JF Kennedy.

There are already more books about Palme dead than about Palme alive, and the number of theories and urban legends is steadily growing. Similar mystery surrounds the trial of the alcoholic Christer Pettersson as Palme’s murderer. The establishment and newspapers made up their minds that Pettersson, who died in 2004 and had been freed after two dramatic trials back in 1989, was the guilty man after all. The mainstay in the evidence is that Palme’s wife Lisbet, wounded by the gunman’s second shot, identified Pettersson as the killer. This may sound convincing, but her memories from the crime scene appear disjointed and confused; it is uncertain whether she ever saw the killer’s face.

Before she saw the police line-up, one of the prosecutors told her that the suspect was in his forties, a down-and-out alcoholic who had killed before. It would therefore not be difficult for Mrs Palme to pick out Pettersson, particularly since she was a psychologist, trained to recognise the signs of alcoholism. Her words when she saw him – “Well, you can see who is the alcoholic” – would indicate her identification was based on reasoning rather than instant recognition.

If her evidence falls through, so does the rest of the case against Pettersson. Several witnesses had seen a man staking out the cinema that Palme had visited earlier, and some of them tentatively identified him as Pettersson, although their original descriptions hardly fitted him. There is no technical evidence against Pettersson, no solid evidence that he had access to firearms, nor a credible motive. And is it possible that a drunk could carry out a murder in a very skilful manner, get clean away, and then keep his dark secret for 18 years?

An unbiased review of the available evidence would indicate a professionally executed murder conspiracy. The killer seemed to know which way the Palmes would be walking home from the cinema, and escaped as if there had been a premeditated plan, along a route that prevented any motor vehicle following him. Eight murder scene witnesses describe a contact between Palme and the killer, two of them seeing the killer speak to him for some time, raising the possibility that Palme was lured to a clandestine meeting that evening, a meeting that was a trap to murder him.

It is tempting to link such a murder conspiracy to the greatest political concern for Olof Palme in early 1986, namely the export of 8.4 billion Swedish kronor’s worth of howitzers from the Bofors armaments corporation to the Indian army. Palme had been involved in this deal, using his friendship with Rajiv Gandhi to push the order to the Swedish company. But behind Palme’s back, Bofors had been illicitly exporting weapons to states involved in war. They also used bribery to secure the Indian order, with a shady company called AE Services, nominally based in Guildford, acting as one of the middlemen.

The morning of the day he was killed, Palme met with the Iraqi ambassador Mohammad Saeed al-Sahaf, later to become notorious as Baghdad Bob, Saddam Hussein’s Minister of Information in the 2003 war. They discussed the Bofors corporation and its various wrongdoings, an area where the ambassador had expert knowledge. Afterwards, Palme was furious. Did Baghdad Bob inadvertently trigger Palme’s murder through exposing the Bofors capitalists Palme already distrusted, and did one of the  middlemen in the India deal have a preconceived plan to make sure the Prime Minister was killed since he threatened to disrupt the deal?

These questions might have had answers if the Swedish police had investigated the Bofors link thoroughly, but this does not seem to have been the case. In fact, vital information from a British MI6 operative, linking the murder to AE Services and the Bofors India deal, was suppressed. Twenty years after the shots were fired, the murder is a mystery, and likely to remain so.

Jan Bondeson is the author of Blood on the Snow: the Killing of Olof Palme (Cornell University Press, 2005)

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This article was first published in the February 2006 issue of BBC History Magazine