‘Don’t rule out SA’: it’s case closed on Olof Palme, but ...

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‘Don’t rule out SA’: it’s case closed on Olof Palme, but nobody’s convinced

Craig Williamson gives Times Select his take on the 34-year mystery, a take that Swedish experts find hard to believe

Jonathan Ancer
This picture of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme was taken in his office in Rosenbad, the building of government offices in Stockholm, nine hours before his murder on February 28 1986.
Murder mystery This picture of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme was taken in his office in Rosenbad, the building of government offices in Stockholm, nine hours before his murder on February 28 1986.
Image: John Wahlbarj/Scanpix Sweden/AFP

The book has been closed on the world’s largest active murder investigation and most baffling cold case. On Wednesday, Sweden’s chief prosecutor, Krister Petersson, announced that the prime suspect in the assassination of former prime minister Olof Palme was the “Skandia Man” – Stig Engström.

Engström, a graphic designer who committed suicide in 2000, was dubbed the Skandia Man because he had worked at the Skandia insurance company, whose office was near the scene of the 1986 murder in Stockholm.

Petersson’s announcement ended an investigation that spanned 34 years, saw more than 10,000 people being questioned, with files taking up 250m of space, had 134 people confess to the murder, and heard more crackpot conspiracies than the Gates-Soros-5G plot to rule the world.

It also ended – officially at any rate – the long-held view that the apartheid government had a hand in the assassination.  However, speculation persists among some Swedish journalists who have followed the investigation closely that Engström is merely a scapegoat to finally close an investigation that police have botched since the murder. 

Just before midnight on February 28 1986 Palme and his wife Lisbet were walking home along a busy main street in Stockholm after watching the Swedish comedy film The Mozart Brothers when a tall man in a dark coat came up behind them and fired a shot into Palme’s back. Palme died before he hit the ground. The assassin shot at Lisbeth, grazing her shoulder, and fled.

Palme was often not accompanied by bodyguards.

Olof Palme with his wife Lisbeth and their sons Mathias, Joachim and Marten.
Olof Palme with his wife Lisbeth and their sons Mathias, Joachim and Marten.
Image: OFF / AFP

Since that night Swedes have been preoccupied with the murder, which has become known as “Europe’s JFK”. Obsessed journalists and amateur sleuths have tried to solve the mysterious whodunit, producing an endless list of suspects, ranging from an alcoholic to Kurdistan militants to an Indian arms scandal involving Swedish artillery manufacturer Bofors, to Palme’s wife to a Russian filmmaker to a host of intelligence agencies, including the CIA, MI6, Mossad and the KGB.

However, the two most widely held theories pointed to Engström, a lone right-wing gunman who was said to have killed Palme because he was incensed by the premier’s socialist politics, and an elaborate international plot hatched and executed by SA’s former security police.

Palme, a friend of ANC leader Oliver Tambo, was a major supporter of African and South American liberation movements, and was reportedly involved in attempts to close down arms- and oil-smuggling rings involving the apartheid government.

Sweden came to a standstill on Wednesday when Petersson held a digital press conference to announce the breakthrough. He said although it had been proved that Engström was the assassin he did not rule out the possibility that the killer had acted as part of a larger conspiracy.

“Engström is deceased ... That is why I decided to discontinue the investigation,” Petersson said, adding that he was sure of his finding.

Obsessed journalists and amateur sleuths have tried to solve the mysterious whodunit, producing an endless list of suspects.

According to Hans Melander, who led the police investigation, the SA connection had been “interesting and had been discussed extensively”.

“A number of people gave our investigators interesting views, but unfortunately there was not enough specific information to do something about this lead,” he said.

The SA angle had been pursued by many journalists, including the bestselling author of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo crime trilogy, Stieg Larsson.

Larsson investigated the cold-blooded killing obsessively until his death from a heart attack in 2004.

His files had gathered dust for almost a decade when writer Jan Stocklassa’s research for a book on crime scenes led him to a storage facility filled with boxes of the evidence Larsson had gathered. Stocklassa took over Larsson’s investigation and published The Man Who Played with Fire: Stieg Larsson’s Lost Files and the Hunt for an Assassin in 2018. The book pointed the finger at the apartheid regime and named former Special Branch agent Craig Williamson as a key suspect. 

The Swedish diplomat Göran Björkdahl also investigated the Palme assassination and was also convinced the blame for the murder lay at the feet of the apartheid government.

Björkdahl had met retired general Chris Thirion, a former head of SA’s Military Intelligence (MI), who told him he was sure that SA carried out the assassination. In October 2015 Björkdahl met a serving general in Military Intelligence, who gave him names of SA operatives allegedly involved in the killing, and offered to cooperate with the investigation in return for immunity for those involved.

Stocklassa and Björkdahl fed their information to the Swedish authorities.

Olof Palme with Cuban President Fidel Castro during his official visit to Cuba in March 1973.
'My man on the left' Olof Palme with Cuban President Fidel Castro during his official visit to Cuba in March 1973.
Image: AFP/Hasse Persson/Scanpix Sweden

According to The Guardian, SA’s intelligence services met  a Swedish delegation on March 18 and handed over an intelligence dossier. However, State Security Agency spokesperson Mava Scott refused to comment on whether a meeting took place, saying legislation barred the agency from revealing operational matters.  

Rumours that apartheid hitmen carried out the killing had been floated for years but became the focus of the investigation when death squad commander Eugene “Prime Evil” de Kock filed an affidavit in his 1996 trial implicating Williamson, his former Special Branch colleague, in the murder.

A month later the Swedes questioned Williamson, who had been detained in Angola for a week before being released, but nothing came of their line of inquiry.

De Kock and Williamson were part of a crack hit-squad unit that was smuggled into the UK to carry out an audacious operation to bomb the ANC’s London headquarters in 1982. They both received amnesty from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for the attack. 

However, Williamson, who had infiltrated the left-wing student movement in 1972 and then the anti-apartheid movement in Europe until he was unmasked in 1980, has continuously denied any involvement in Palme’s murder.

A number of people gave our investigators interesting views, but unfortunately there was not enough specific information to do something about this lead.

“Palme has given me more grief than anything I actually did,” he told me in an interview in 2016. “The same old allegations resurface. When I first heard it I joked about it, which was probably a mistake. I said: ‘Ja sure, it was a Koevoet unit and we drove from SA with Casspirs and camped outside Stockholm, did the operation, and then drove home and nobody saw us’.”

Williamson listened to Petterson’s digital press conference yesterday with “much interest”. 

He said he believed the origin of the allegations of his and SA’s involvement came from “Antifa activists with a conspiratorial bent – always looking for right-wing conspiracies lurking in government, security forces and corporations”.

He also accused British intelligence agents of being behind these claims.

“Of course the question is what motivated these allegations? 50 million Swedish krona [about R90m] reward money? Antifa-type crazy conspiratorial thinking? And did some people use the SA involvement red herring to muddy the water around the investigation, and if so why?”

He insisted that SA was not involved.

“I can think of no reason why anyone in authority in SA at that time would even think of such an operation. The SA government had the backing of both the Reagan and Thatcher administrations and we worked hard to maintain that. Palme and Sweden’s support for the ANC was a minor issue. Who in their right mind would risk assassinating a Western head of state? To do such a thing risked a devastating Security Council resolution which would achieve everything that the enemies of SA could hope for.”

Who in their right mind would risk assassinating a Western head of state?

He said the people who believed that the Palme assassination was the result of a conspiracy would be dissatisfied with the closure of the investigation and would not be convinced that it was carried out by a lone gunman with no clear motive.

“Many won’t believe that this decision is the real end of the matter so I expect to continue to read allegations of our involvement,” Williamson said.

Björkdahl also listened to yesterday’s announcement with much interest but he soon become frustrated.

“It’s extremely disappointing,” he said. “There was zero new evidence ... nothing new and no evidence whatsoever against Engström. His family could sue the state for defamation.”

He said many people who had followed the saga were not satisfied with the outcome.

Gunnar Hall, a Swedish journalist who has written a number of books on the Olof Palme case, agreed with Bjorkdahl’s assessment of Petersson’s explanation.

“It was absurd,” he said. “It’s just not a believable story about what really happened. There are so many holes. It’s so weak. I think the prosecutor just wanted to present a solution in a case that the authorities have bungled from beginning.”  

Both Hall and Björkdahl insist that SA’s involvement cannot be ruled out.

“Melander [the head of the police investigation] said that SA is interesting motive-wise but said there was nothing concrete to investigate,” said Björkdah. “I don't agree. They could start by following up with that Military Intelligence general I met in October 2015 who admitted to me that SA ordered the assassination of Palme and he gave me names.

“I am convinced that SA is part of the solution and I hope that South Africans will come forward. What I hope to see is immunity against prosecution by Sweden and cards on the table from SA,” he said, adding that the need to know is greater than the need to punish.  

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