Sweden: Anna Lindh murder trial ends

The murder trial in Stockholm of the alleged killer of Swedish Social Democrat Foreign Minister Anna Lindh concluded January 19. The chief judge declared that the court’s decision would be given in four weeks, following a psychiatric examination of Mijailo Mijailovic, the only defendant in the case.

Lindh was fatally stabbed on September 10, 2003 as she shopped with a friend in a busy Stockholm department store. Despite her position as foreign minister she did not have a permanent bodyguard, a situation which was quite normal for senior Swedish politicians. Lindh died the following day of her injuries.

The killing came in the midst of a hotly contested referendum battle on whether or not Sweden should adopt the European single currency. Lindh was one of the highest profile campaigners for the government’s position of accepting the euro. Her face, plastered on billboards, lamp posts and TV, was well known and her murder seemed to embody the enormous political tensions building up in Sweden. In the end the euro was rejected, despite considerable public mourning for the popular figure.

Soon after the killing, a 35-year-old old socialite, Per Olof Svensson, was arrested. Thought to have far right sympathies and connections to the Swedish royal family, Svensson has a record of threatening public officials. Later released for lack of evidence, Svensson has subsequently taken legal action against the press coverage of his arrest.

Mijailo Mijailovic was arrested instead. In early January, faced with DNA evidence linking him to the murder weapon and also CCTV footage, Mijailovic confessed. His defence lawyers presented a case rejecting a charge of murder on grounds of diminished responsibility.

In recent years Sweden has seen a spate of far right attacks on judges, journalists, trade unionists and immigrants. Lindh’s killing invited direct comparisons with the 1986 murder of then Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme. Palme was shot in a Stockholm street and no one was ever convicted of his murder. An unstable right-wing individual, Christer Pettersson, was tried but acquitted for lack of evidence.

Years of neglect

News reports of the trial give a sense of a tragic, disturbed and neglected young man, but contradict the general media presentation and Mijailovic’s own defence that this was an entirely apolitical killing that had nothing to do with Lindh’s prominent political role and said nothing about the general condition of Swedish society.

The 25-year-old, whose parents were originally from Serbia and who has a history of psychiatric problems, reflects the complexities and tortured trajectory of recent Swedish and European history.

At the age of six, Mijailovic was sent to live with his grandparents in Yugoslavia. Returning to Sweden seven years later as Yugoslavia descended into fratricidal chaos bound up with the restoration of capitalism in Eastern Europe, he found it difficult to master the Swedish language and had difficulty mixing with people.

In his teens Mijailovic began to exhibit violent tendencies. He had several run-ins with the police over possession of knives and harassment of other young people. In 1997 he was arrested and sent to a youth prison for stabbing his father. Ever since he has been receiving treatment for mental health problems and has consequently fallen foul of the systematic cutbacks that have taken place in Sweden’s public sector since the beginning of the 1990s.

In 1995 the Social Democratic government introduced reforms of Sweden’s mental health system, reducing the number of closed psychiatric wards and pushing patients into “the community”, often with grossly inadequate support structures. Done under the guise of “integrating” mentally ill people into society and the “deinstitutionalisation” of psychiatric treatment, the reforms enabled the Swedish government to axe expensive psychiatric hospitals while providing community care on the cheap.

Since 1995 many more people suffering from mental illnesses have found themselves with little or no appropriate care. Several Swedish mental health professionals and charities have pointed to Mijailovic’s case as expressing the failures of the country’s psychiatric services. Leif Silbersky, a leading defence lawyer who has experience of other cases involving mentally ill defendants, told BBC News Online, “It is a fantastic and ridiculous situation we’re in. Anna Lindh has to die so that he [Mijailovic] can get psychiatric treatment. There has to be a debate in Sweden about psychiatric care.”

According to statistics from the National Board of Health and Welfare the number of mentally ill homeless people in Sweden has substantially increased since the 1995 reforms. The proportion of homeless people suffering from mental illness increased from 18 percent in 1993 to 35 percent in 1999, a total of some 3,000 people.

In recent years there have been a number of violent attacks on the public by people with mental health problems, although the mentally ill are far more likely to be the victims of crime than the perpetrators. Mental health professionals have pointed out that in many cases attacks by the mentally ill are desperate cries for help from people who have not received appropriate care from the public health system.

Anger at NATO attack on Serbia

Two years after beginning psychiatric care, Mijailovic reportedly became incensed by the United States and European powers constant demonising of Serbia. He developed what one acquaintance called an “all for Serbia” attitude, likely influenced by his father’s reputedly fervent Serb nationalism.

Contrary to Sweden’s traditional policy of neutrality, Anna Lindh and Prime Minister Goran Persson strongly supported the US-led attack on Serbia, launched in 1999, repeating the official NATO line that the attack was necessary to protect ethnic Kosovan-Albanians from Serbia soldiers. Later Swedish troops were sent to Kosovo where they were placed under NATO command.

It seems likely then that when Lindh and Mijailovic’s paths accidentally crossed in September 2003, Mijailovic had some idea of Anna Lindh’s identity. During the trial Mijailovic claimed that the voice of Jesus “ordered” him to attack the foreign minister.

Mijailovic has pleaded not guilty to murder, insisting that he had never wanted to harm Lindh and that he had hoped she would survive the attack. “I was worried about what had happened. I was hoping that she would survive,” he told the court.

He said that he was unable to get psychiatric help in the period prior to the attack and for several days afterwards.

At the time he was taking a cocktail of prescription and over-the-counter drugs to treat severe sleeping problems, with little adequate medical supervision. In court his defence argued that he had been wrongly prescribed medication which, on top of the other drugs he was consuming, was causing him additional mental problems. The drug in question is Rohypnol, a powerful antidepressant given to people with chronic sleeping difficulties. Rohypnol has been banned in several countries, including the US, and may have dangerous side-effects when taken with other drugs.

A picture emerges then of an alienated, mentally ill, isolated, sleepless person, desperately in need of treatment and support, who recognised and killed Lindh in a spontaneous act.

One final point. Much comment has been made about Lindh’s lack of a bodyguard—a practice that would be entirely inconceivable for the foreign ministers of most European countries. The Swedish government’s inability to defend its own members itself suggests a degree of disorientation amongst the Swedish elite, particularly leading Social Democrats. It is as if, after a long era during which Sweden was hailed as the epitome of progressive social welfare policies and social harmony, they are in denial about the potentially dangerous personal consequences of the tensions unleashed by their own domestic and foreign policies.