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Lisbeth Palme, Witness to an Assassination, Dies at 87

Lisbeth Palme, a crucial witness in one of the biggest unsolved crimes in modern European history, the 1986 murder of her husband, Prime Minister Olof Palme of Sweden, has died at 87.

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Neil Genzlinger
, New York Times

Lisbeth Palme, a crucial witness in one of the biggest unsolved crimes in modern European history, the 1986 murder of her husband, Prime Minister Olof Palme of Sweden, has died at 87.

Prime Minister Stefan Lofven noted her death Thursday in a Facebook post, calling Palme, a child psychologist, “a committed champion of the child’s right,” a reference to her work on children’s issues for the United Nations and others. The date and location of her death were not immediately reported.

Palme had just left a movie theater in Stockholm with her husband on the night of Feb. 28, 1986, when someone stepped out of the shadows and fired several shots. Olof Palme, who was not accompanied by security guards, collapsed on the sidewalk; once the police arrived, it took them a while to realize who he was, although Lisbeth Palme is said to have shouted: “Don’t you see who it is? They’ve shot my Olof!”

Lisbeth Palme had been grazed by a bullet but was not seriously hurt. Her husband, though, died shortly after. And the country, which was unaccustomed to gun violence at the time, was in shock — so much so that the trauma has still not completely worn off, especially with the crime unsolved.

“Our idea of Sweden back then was of a bucolic, tranquil haven, where leaders lived like the ordinary people,” Jonas Hinnfors, professor of politics at the University of Göteborg, told The New York Times in 2016 for an article on the 30th anniversary of the shooting. “Yet suddenly, there lies the prime minister in his own blood, and the legal system fails to find the killer. Our self-image was shattered.”

The police investigation was widely criticized for sloppiness. The shell casings, for instance, were found not by investigators but by passers-by.

In 1988 a career criminal with a substance-abuse problem, Christer Pettersson, was convicted of the crime, in part on the strength of Lisbeth Palme’s identification of him as the killer. But the next year a higher court set him free, citing a shortage of evidence and questions about the credibility of her identification.

In the years since, there has been no end of speculation about who carried out the killing and why. The guessing game has examined the political positions and international involvements of Olof Palme, a member of the Social Democratic Party who had been a force in Sweden for years. The killing, depending on the theory, involved Kurdish rebels, an international arms deal, the CIA or Croatian terrorists. Crime novelist Stieg Larsson once sent the authorities 15 boxes of papers that he said linked the killing to the security forces of South Africa; Olof Palme had been a vocal critic of apartheid.

Anna Lisbeth Christina Beck-Friis was born on March 14, 1931, in Stockholm. She and Olof Palme married in 1956.

As a child psychologist she was a senior staff member of Sweden’s social welfare department. She continued in the public arena after her husband’s death: In November 1986 she was named chairwoman of the Swedish committee for UNICEF, the U.N. Children’s Fund. She was UNICEF’s worldwide chairwoman in 1991 and 1992.

She was also one of seven members of an international panel that in 2000 issued a report criticizing the United States and other governments, as well as religious groups, for not doing enough to stop the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

Her survivors include three sons, Joakim, Marten and Mattias Palme.

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