Sweden, a respected voice on human rights that is quick to denounce abuses abroad, was one of the most vocal European Union members demanding in March that Croatia find war crime suspect Ante Gotovina before starting negotiations to join the EU.
But Sweden has only one police officer investigating human rights abusers who have found refuge on its own soil. He says as many as 1000 live in Sweden, protected from deportation by a UN convention and with little risk of being brought to justice.
Meeting former tormentors
“If someone sits down and goes through the immigration files, he or she will easily find several hundred or maybe a thousand potential war criminals,” detective superintendent Hans Olvebro, the Swedish police’s one-man war crimes unit, told Reuters.
Some of the war crimes suspects
Human rights groups say the situation undermines Sweden’s international reputation as a pioneer in asylum law and has led to cases where victims of torture who have found refuge here have bumped into their tormentors on the streets of Stockholm.
It contrasts with the government’s recent refusal to stop the deportation of about 150 child asylum-seekers suffering from trauma and depression. It argued that bending the rules would encourage more such cases.
Frida Blom of human rights group Swedish Peace called it “really hollow” for Sweden to tout itself as a champion of the persecuted but have one person investigating war crimes, whereas Denmark has a Special International Crimes Office with a staff of 17.
Denmark set up the unit to investigate former Iraqi army chief Nizar al-Khazraji, suspected of chemical weapons attacks on Kurds under Saddam Hussein. He sought refuge in Denmark and was put under house arrest there but went missing in 2003.
“We tend as a society to lean back and look at human rights as an issue in other countries and not to study our own faults”
Olvebro, whose 39 years on the force include two and a half years investigating war crimes in Bosnia for The Hague tribunal, said suspects came from conflict areas of the 1980s and 1990s such as Afghanistan, the Balkans, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran and Africa.
Human rights groups think Sweden is home to members of the Khad, Afghanistan’s secret police under communist rule in the 1980s when 50,000 people were killed. Two Khad men in the Netherlands were accused of war crimes last month.
They also think it shelters members of the South Lebanon Army, a militia set up by Israel in 1985 that is accused of torturing and killing Palestinians and Lebanese. When Israel pulled out in 2000, its commanders fled, some to Europe.
In a sample Olvebro took of 500 arrivals from a country he would not name, half were “military, police, politicians or maybe doctors who worked in prisons” warranting investigation.
“It’s not very hard to come up with this number,” he said.
The Migration Board rarely reports cases to the police. With no routine checks, screening depends on “anonymous tip-offs or information from some organisation that someone is suspect”, the board’s deputy director Lars-Gunnar Lundh told Reuters.
Even when they are reported, Olvebro only has the capacity to investigate a handful of cases. Meanwhile, the suspects remain at liberty and some even obtain Swedish citizenship, he said.
Sweden in modern times has not put anyone on trial for war crimes. It angered Jewish Nazi hunters at the Simon Wiesenthal Centre by refusing to investigate 100 to 200 suspected Baltic Nazi collaborators who fled to Sweden after the second world war.
The country was bound by a 25-year statute of limitations on all crimes – which it plans to drop soon under a 1998 Rome treaty scrapping such limitations for crimes against humanity.
The Geneva Convention forbids giving anyone suspected of war crimes or crimes against humanity asylum, and Sweden is a signatory of a UN torture convention that outlaws repatriating anyone likely to be tortured in their homeland.
Like other states, Sweden gives such people permits to stay, but rights groups say it falls short of EU requirements that the police and immigration departments be equipped to prosecute any war criminals discovered on European soil.
Amnesty International’s Carl Soderbergh said there was a “legal limbo” in Sweden for fugitive war criminals.
“It’s absurd that there is only one person dedicated to this issue,” he said. “It has to do with a general attitude problem. We tend as a society to lean back and look at human rights as an issue in other countries and not to study our own faults.”
Immigration Minister Barbro Holmberg said Olvebro’s estimate was “an exaggeration” but there was a “small number” of war criminals in Sweden “kept under surveillance all the time”.
The Social Democrat government, criticised by rights groups, charities and the church over the asylum children, quietly has begun to review its screening and reporting procedures, said Migration Board, justice and foreign ministry officials.
The police should also have a “serious discussion and review whether they have enough people in this area”, Holmberg said.
“It is important that people who have committed war crimes don’t get asylum in Sweden,” she said. “The right to asylum is for people fleeing persecution, not people fleeing justice.”