In my Podcasts over the last few months I have been looking at the history of the criminalisation of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and the Kurdish movement in different countries in Europe; the UK, Germany, Belgium and France, for example. Yet there is one country in Europe, important in the history of the criminalisation of the Kurds, that you may not guess or know about if you are relatively new to the Kurdish issue. Thirty-six years ago this month, there was an extraordinary political crime, that as well as being a national tragedy for Sweden, the Scandinavian country where it happened, also turned out to have serious consequences that would be instrumental in criminalising the PKK and the Kurds in Europe. It also had a long-lasting negative effect on the political efforts of the Kurdish people’s movement to try to achieve a peaceful and political settlement to the long and painful conflict between Turkey and the PKK, that originated as a result of the policies that established the modern state of Turkey. These policies denied the Kurdish people’s culture, identity and language, and criminalised any resistance by the Kurds against these racist forced assimilation policies.
So, on the night of 28 February 1986, the social democratic Prime Minister of Sweden, Olof Palme, loved by the left and hated by the right in equal measure, then aged 59, was shot in the back and killed at close range in a busy street in central Stockholm, after attending the theatre with his wife.
A very long, and very controversial investigation began which was riddled with mistakes, bungles and incompetency, and 25 years later, in the year 2000, the Swedish prosecutor finally named the man whom they believed to have killed Olof Palme as Stig Engstrom, a graphic designer known as the “Skandia Man” because he worked at the nearby Skandia Insurance company building, who had killed himself in the same year. For those who would like to know a little more about this aspect of the case, and it is fascinating, you can watch a very good film called The Unlikely Murderer on Netflix, about the story of the main suspect in the Olaf Palme assassination, Stig Engstrom.
But during the investigation, and according to the now imprisoned Kurdish leader, Abdullah Öcalan, even before the assassination, there was a lot of intelligence chatter and attention placed on the PKK by international and Swedish intelligence agencies, who would eventually, for a while at least, name the PKK as the prime suspect in the assassination of the Swedish prime minister.
Ten years later in 1996, in an interview on the Kurdish TV station Med TV regarding the Olof Palme assassination and the criminalisation of the Kurds in Europe, Abdullah Öcalan would say, “As I said, Turkish Interior Minister Mustafa Kalemli and the German Interior Minister signed an agreement to oppose the Kurdish liberation movement across Europe. Reagan, Thatcher and Kohl held their hands over them. With the murder of Olof Palme, a ‘Kurdish track’ was invented, and suddenly all Kurds were guilty. Support for the Kurdish freedom struggle waned and PKK persecutions began. A witch hunt began: ‘All Kurds are blacklisted; all the Kurds are terrorists’. And since then, the persecutions have continued. “
And so accordingly many Kurdish activists see the origins of the criminalisation of the Kurds in Europe in the intelligence agencies’ use of the assassination of Olof Palme, a man who actually supported national liberation movements and the Kurdish struggle for rights, as a way to criminalise and limit support for the growing Kurdish movement in Europe at the time.
So, I am very pleased and honoured to be joined today to discuss these issues around the criminalisation of the PKK and the Kurds, which began in 1986 after the assassination of Olof Palme and continues today, by Håkan Svenneling, a Member of Parliament for the Swedish Left Party, I believe the third largest party of the Swedish Parliament, and again, I believe that Håkan is a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and speaker of the Left Party’s foreign affairs. He is, according to my research, against the labelling and criminalisation of the Kurdish struggle, and has been involved in initiatives which we hope to hear about, to decriminalise the PKK to look for ways to find a peaceful and political solution to the Kurdish question.
Welcome to Medya News Håkan Svenneling.
On the 36th anniversary of the assassination of Olaf Palme, Swedish MP Håkan Svenneling talked from his own perspective about what he knew about the Olof Palme assassination in Stockholm in February 1986. He said that he was living in Stockholm at the time of the murder, and joked that he always says when telling this story that he was a suspect in murder although he was only 6 months old. He says there were very many suspects in this murder, including the PKK, but that the Swedish authorities have decided that the murderer was probably Stig Engstrom, who died in 2011. He said that one of the reasons why the Swedish judicial system was unable to convict Engstrom when he was alive, was that they had put so many resources into the PKK line of investigation, in which there was no evidence at all. He said that the investigator was a character who enjoyed the TV attention but was not seemingly so interested in finding the murderer. He said that many Kurdish people were followed, detained and interrogated during the years of the investigation of the assassination of Olaf Plame, as the PKK line of enquiry went on for a long time. It was a time when a lot of mistrust built up between the Swedish authorities and the Kurds, and there is still a legacy of that mistrust even to this day as a result.
Håkan explained that the investigation was not at all professional and that the investigator was close to the government. He agreed that as it was the investigation of the assassination of a prime minister, it would be possible for all sorts of governments to be in contact regarding the investigation, and that it was also possible that the Turkish government was, although there was no evidence for this.
Håkan said that today there is a thriving Kurdish community in Sweden, that is well integrated into Swedish society.
He said that the Kurdish community had been targeted during the years of the Olof Palme investigation, but that later there was less harassment, although he said that over the last three years it has once again become more difficult for Kurdish refugees in Sweden.
He said that there seems to be a divided Sweden at the moment in relation to the Kurds. The government are supportive of the mainly Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) but the intelligence services are much more aggressive when it comes to Kurdish politics and individual Kurdish activists that the Swedish intelligence agencies and security police (SAPO) target.
He thought the harassment was getting worse all the time, with Kurds being targeted, refused permission to stay and even deported.
He said that at the 2016 Congress of the Left Party there was a motion to support the decriminalisation of the PKK which won a majority.
He said they have tried to raise the issue of the labelling of the PKK both in European arenas and in the Swedish parliament.
He said that the Social Democratic Party does not want to talk about it at all and always refers the issue to the European Parliament saying it is nothing to do with the Swedish government.
Håkan said that what is needed is to keep pushing for decriminalisation as it will not happen overnight, and to point out how the Turkish government are using the labelling of the PKK for their own purposes. He gave the example of Turkish jets and drones bombing in northern Iraq and northeast Syria with the Turkish state justifying their bombings as ‘fighting terrorism’. So, he says, this is an obstacle to peace in the Middle East. If the PKK was delisted it would help to be able to initiate peace negotiations, the western countries would be able to condemn more strongly the attacks of Turkey, and this would eventually lead to more stability in the Middle East.
He concluded by saying that although the Olof Palme incident was a black mark on Swedish history it should not be seen as Sweden’s policy. Olof Palme was a great friend to the oppressed, and Kurdish people should continue to put pressure on Swedish politicians to take action, as the parliamentarians did when they worked together to halt arms sales to Turkey after the Afrin invasion.