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Who Killed Olof Palme?

Thirty-four years after the prime minister was murdered, Sweden has identified his assassin. But the case is by no means concluded.

AFP/Getty Images

In a dreary news conference broadcast live from Stockholm this morning, Swedish chief prosecutor Krister Petterson named the man he thinks assassinated Prime Minister Olof Palme in 1986: Stig Engström. Dubbed “the Skandia Man” in the press because he worked at the Skandia insurance firm’s office near the murder scene at the time, Engström died by suicide in 2000.

When Palme was shot dead while walking through the streets of Stockholm, it kicked off the largest criminal case in Sweden’s history. Though around 20 people witnessed the killing, including Palme’s wife, nobody has ever been prosecuted for the crime. Suspects over the years have ranged from members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party to a number of different far-right extremists, but the cops’ blunders and poor leadership led them nowhere. 

Many have speculated that this means the hit was an inside job. Palme was deeply unpopular with some sectors of Swedish society, so there was no lack of motivation, from inside or outside the government. Conspiracies of all kinds swirled around the killing, which over 130 people have falsely confessed to committing, in a syndrome nicknamed Palmessjukdom: “Palme sickness.”

The assassination has morphed into a vast national obsession, a kind of a keystone in Swedish identity, generating countless books, blogs, and podcasts (including one which has aired 228 episodes to date). It’s a great murder-mystery story for enthusiasts of political conspiracy theories, many of whom are dissatisfied with today’s verdict. They think that Sweden has good reason to suppress the truth—and that the United States could be involved.

At the site of Palme’s death, grieving Swedes left thousands of red roses, the symbol of the Swedish Social Democratic Party he led. Thanks to his liberal politics, Palme was loathed by the hard-right nationalist underground, which went into hiding after World War II but clung like lichen to parts of Scandinavian society. It’s considerably more prominent now: In the 2018 general election, the Sweden Democrats got 17.5 percent of the vote. (Swedish parties have confusingly similar names: This one is originally a fascist party that rebranded along modern anti-immigrant nationalist lines.) The theory of a hard-right gunman has long fit the lex parsimoniae: The simplest explanation is usually correct.

But Engström doesn’t fit that particular bill.  He was once a member of the Moderate Party, a liberal-conservative mainstream group. Born in Mumbai to Swedish parents in 1934, he returned to his parents’ homeland at the age of 12. He worked as a graphic designer, including on field manuals for the Swedish military, before going to work at Skandia. He did leave the Moderates after a disagreement with his local branch, and Swedish police claim he moved in “Palme-critical circles,” but it’s thin stuff. 

Engström was one of the approximately 20 people on the scene when Palme was killed, but police did not interview him on the spot. They seemed to grow irritated when they did later speak with him, as he changed his story a number of times and seemed keen on courting publicity. They excluded him as a suspect in 1987.

That’s about the sum of what we know. And, as journalists clarified through questions during today’s press conference, the Swedish police have uncovered no new evidence in the case. They have found a gun, but they can’t come close to proving it was the gun.

When it comes to speculating about alternative suspects, we enter conspiracy theory territory. But there are good reasons to indulge in the idea that there’s more to this story than the enigmatic figure of Stig Engström. 

The foremost is a compelling argument that Palme was assassinated by multiple collaborating security agencies. This theory was developed by the author Stieg Larsson, the late author of the Millennium trilogy and longtime investigative reporter into the far right. Larsson theorized that Palme was probably assassinated by at least two right-wing organizations working together: the South African government and one or more gunmen hired from the Swedish fascist underground or possibly even the police.

The theory goes like this. During the so-called “high” apartheid era, from 1948 to the early 1990s, the South African government was a death machine, executing 134 of its own political prisoners, killing a number of anti-apartheid activists, and commissioning several extrajudicial assassinations abroad of politicians who either opposed apartheid or meddled in the country’s shady trade affairs. 

Many of these latter crimes have never been publicly solved. The death of the United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld—also a Swede—in a mysterious plane accident in Zambia in 1961 has long been attributed to the South African apartheid government, possibly in collaboration with Britain and the U.S.

This is not an outlandish theory. As The New York Times reported in 1996, former police hit squad commander Eugene de Kock once testified in court that the Palme killing was part of “Operation Long Reach,” the secret campaign to counter the apartheid administration’s foes abroad. Jan Stocklassa, author of The Man Who Played With Fire: Stieg Larsson’s Lost Files and the Hunt for an Assassin, has compiled bold new evidence supporting this theory from former apartheid torturers, many of whom have been long protected by the amnesty they received as part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s agreements.

The other reason we have known so little about the international crimes South Africa committed during apartheid is that the U.S. might prefer it that way. In the mid-1980s, the South African government was having trouble navigating a global market bent on excluding it through boycotts. It got around the problem by partaking in secret trade deals with Iran and Israel, brokered by then–CIA Director William Casey. When Olof Palme won reelection in 1985, he recommitted to his long-standing anti-apartheid foreign policy, which took the form of interfering in those shadow trade networks in arms and oil. In 1985, Sweden intercepted a delivery of arms en route to Iran and revealed to the world that Israel was selling explosives to Iran.

This broader scandal is known, of course, as the Iran-Contra Affair. If Palme was intending to expose details from Iran-Contra in the latter half of 1985, then suspicion for colluding in his assassination would logically fall on the CIA, as well as South Africa. It was, according to this theory, in the interests of Iran, the U.S., Israel, and South Africa to have him disappeared. South Africa, conspiracy theorists point out, was the party with the death squad contacts handy. 

In March of this year, the South African authorities handed Sweden their own 1986 dossier on the Palme murder, which I, like many others, assumed would be connected to today’s announcement. It’s far from implausible that, between March and now, the U.S. pressured Sweden and South Africa not to reveal this information. The U.S., after all, has never been eager to own up to its past foreign policy crimes.

Call me a tinfoil milliner, but at least it’s a motive, and the Swedish cops don’t have one of those. During today’s press conference, Krister Petterson looked tired as a journalist asked him how sure he was about naming Engström as the culprit. “He appears to be a suspected perpetrator,” said Petterson, his mouth set in a grim line. “I have made a decision to discontinue the investigation.”