Reviewed by Irene Scobbie in SBR 2013:1
Review Section: Factual Crime Writing
When Olof Palme, one of Sweden’s internationally best-known twentiethcentury politicians, was assassinated on 28 February, 1986, national and international reaction was considerable. He was shot just after leaving a cinema in Stockholm. Palme had no bodyguard, having deemed it unnecessary. It was said to be the day Sweden lost its innocence.
Immediately, a Dagens Nyheter journalist, Ann-Marie Åsheden, and her editor, Christina Jutterström, secretly arranged a series of interviews with Hans Holmér, Chief Constable of Stockholm region and leader of the murder investigation. Their plan was to have inside information ready as a scoop when the murder was solved. Holmér imposed two conditions: personal censorship of Åsheden’s text and exclusion of Jutterström. The hour-long interviews took place almost weekly. The murder was never solved and the secret ‘scoop’ took nearly a year to come to light, to general opprobrium. Now, 25 years later, Åsheden examines her material again and publishes her account of events, hoping to lift the curse still hanging over Holmér’s name.
The assassination left Sweden in a state of shock. Foreign correspondents were surprised at delays in securing the crime scene, setting up barriers and assembling an investigative team with a clear chain of command. Hans Holmér, the most dynamic and charismatic of the policemen involved, took charge. He exuded confidence and was a good communicator who arranged daily press conferences and frequent TV appearances. Admirers sent him flowers and, after a TV display of ‘the murder weapon’, a Smith and Wesson revolver, even likened him to Clint Eastwood. Unfortunately, he did not observe the rules of the Swedish judicial system, which demand close collaboration between police and public prosecution service. Holmér was at loggerheads with two successive prosecutors. Both wanted to oversee the investigation and to arraign only on sound evidence, while Holmér preferred to arrest on suspicion and see what emerged. Holmér was obdurate, the prosecutors cautious and afraid of losing face.
More than 24,000 pages of notes and 9,000 interviews later, the investigation reached stalemate. Holmér had assured the public of a successful outcome, and baulked at admitting defeat. An apparent lifeline, later to prove fatal, was the appearance of the witness Seppo A., who stated that while in prison two prisoners, the Kurd (or part-Kurd) Naif D and the Croat Miro Baresic, had asked him to procure two Smith and Wesson revolvers. He had heard Naif say that he would like to murder Palme, and both Naif and Baresic had been delighted at Palme’s death. Now Seppo was afraid the guns were the murder weapons. Seppo was a drunkard but his story seemed credible and led Holmér’s thoughts towards the PKK, a Kurdish freedom movement fighting Turkish oppression. The organisation had a reputation for violence. In Sweden, from 1984 onwards, it was known to have ruthlessly killed defectors. PKK members suspected that their telephones were tapped and used their own code. A fortnight before Palme’s murder, Holmér had read a transcription referring to a ‘wedding’ to be arranged ‘on the street’. He thought it likely that they were planning the assassination.
Prosecutors pointed out how circumstantial the evidence was but Holmér became convinced that the PKK lay behind the murder. He planned Operation Alfa, wanting arrest warrants issued simultaneously to fifty PKK members. Such ‘fishing exercises’ were contrary to Swedish law: a suspect must be told exactly the nature of the presumed offence. Through sheer determination, Holmér persuaded the prosecutors to accept a much truncated version of his plan, but the arrested PKK members simply refused to cooperate. With no indictable evidence, the PKK members and their liberal-minded supporters now had another effective propaganda weapon against Holmér’s ‘dictatorial methods’.
Lack of success and an obsession with the PKK caused the media to turn on Holmér: the hero had become accursed. Banner headlines now ran ‘An encroachment without parallel’, ‘Holmér puts himself above the law’, ‘Holmér must go’ and grew increasingly savage – ‘Holmér is a gangster type’; Jan Myrdal referred to ‘Holmér’s ‘coup d’état’ and Jan Guillou even compared him with Chile’s junta.
Holmér’s position became untenable and in February 1987 he withdrew. He died in 2002, still vilified by some bureaucrats and deserted by many friends. While pitying a fallen hero, one still doubts whether Åsheden succeeds in lifting the curse. She is hardly an impartial witness: as an insider, she usually saw events from Holmér’s point of view and she had grown fond of him. Even so, she is aware of his desperation and fixation on the PKK. On the other hand, she shows how immoderate the media became and calls it ‘murder by media’. A year after the murder, Richard Reeves of the New York Times is a more disinterested observer, who blames the failure of the investigation on a flawed judicial system and a free but lazy press. Even now, the only definite conclusion seems to be that Holmér remains a controversial figure.