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Swedish PM Olof Palme unsolved murder case dropped as main suspect is dead

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By Pauline Bock with AFP, AP
A picture taken on December 12, 1983 shows Swedish politican and Prime minister Olof Palme in Stockholm.
A picture taken on December 12, 1983 shows Swedish politican and Prime minister Olof Palme in Stockholm.   -   Copyright  ANDERS HOLMSTROM/AFP
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Over thirty years after the murder of Sweden's former prime minister Olof Palme, a Sweden prosecutor announced on Wednesday he would discontinue the investigation since the main suspect is deceased.

Olof Palme was shot dead on 28 February 1986. The charismatic leader of the Social-Democratic party and his wife Lisbeth Palme had just left a cinema in downtown Stockholm.

The shooter managed to flee with the murder weapon.

"My decision is to discontinue this investigation since the suspect is deceased," Sweden's Chief Prosecutor Krister Petersson said on Wednesday in a press conference held alongside Head of Investigation Hans Melander. They have been in charge of the case since 2017.

Petersson named the deceased suspect as Stig Engström, an opponent of Olof Palme's left-wing values.

"There is one suspect that we can't get around: Stig Engström, the Skandia man," the prosecutor said. "He is deceased, so we cannot start proceedings."

Palme was Sweden's Prime minister from 1969 to 1976 and again from 1982 until his murder in 1986; he was vocally opposed to the Vietnam war, the South African apartheid and the nuclear bomb.

Engström 'lied during police interviews'

Engström had been among the first people to arrive on the crime scene in 1986, from the Skandia insurance company where he worked, which had offices around the corner. He was known as "the Skandia man" in the investigation for this reason.

Police interrogated him as a witness at the time, but he was deemed unreliable as he regularly changed his version. He died in 2000.

The prosecution said they have reasons to believe Engström "lied during his police interviews".

Engström, the prosecutor said, was carrying a gun on the night of the murder and "knew how to handle a gun" due to his military background and his shooting club membership.

He also "had a room full of guns" at home, the prosecutor said, and one gun from his collection seemed to match the caliber used in the crime, but forensic evidence could not confirm this.

The clothes Engström wore that night - a cap, glasses and a long, dark coat - seem to match witness descriptions of the killer, the prosecutors added.

Engström "always claimed that he was in his office the whole evening", they said, but speaking to Skandia security guards, the investigators discovered that he did indeed leave the office building at the time of the murder. They couldn't however pinpoint the exact time he came back.

Earlier this year, Petersson said he was "positive about being able to present what happened and who is responsible for it."

Local media reported recently that prosecutors may now be in possession of the murder weapon but prosecutor Petersson said on Wednesday that "it won't be possible to tie a weapon to the murder scene" because there had been no new findings from the forensic evidence.

"We have to work with the same forensic evidence," he said.

Unsolved case since the late 1980s

Palme's wife Lisbeth, who was injured in the attack, identified the murderer at the time as Christer Pettersson, a known criminal who was convicted of the PM's murder in July 1989.

But he was later discharged a few months later for lack of proof, and the case remained unsolved.

Pettersson died in 2004. He wasn't related to prosecutor Krister Pettersson.

Lisbeth Palme, the former PM's widow, died in 2018.

The murder shocked Sweden and eroded the nation's image of a safe country, where until that point politicians had moved around without bodyguards.

A popular saying at the time was that after the murder, "Sweden lost its innocence".

"The fact that a country's prime minister was murdered is a national trauma. I now have a hope that the wound can heal," Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven, a Social Democrat like Palme, told reporters later on Wednesday.

"A thorough work has been carried out by the prosecutors and they have gone to the bottom of it.... The best thing would have, of course, been through a conviction."

Over the years, thousands of people were heard by the police, which has collected enough information - relevant to the investigation or not - to fill 250 meters of shelves.

The Swedish police was heavily criticised for their handling of the case in the 1980s.

The night of the murder, the crime scene had not been correctly cordoned off, which might have led to potential proof destruction.