Enforced Disappearences

Sweden’s Disappeared: The Search for Justice and the Right to the Truth

Von Susanne Berger

For the Swedish victims of enforced disappearance and their families, the legal Right to the Truth is only meaningful if governments and international courts are committed to its enforcement.

From Raoul Wallenberg, the crew of a lost DC-3 aircraft and more than one hundred Swedish sailors who all vanished during the Cold War, to the current cases of [journalist] Dawit Isaak and [publisher] Gui Minhai – every year, Swedish families of the disappeared, past and present, confront the same painful memories while they continue the search for answers to questions that refuse to go away.

The obvious complexities of these cases posed and continue to pose enormous challenges for Swedish authorities. But investigators and the relatives of the missing worry about a noticeable pattern of reluctance and outright passivity in the official handling of many of these disappearances that has never been fully explained [and that in some instances raises doubts about the sincerity of Swedish efforts.

The Past as Prologue

The list of unsolved disappearances also includes the kidnapping and murder of  [Swedish] teenager Dagmar Hagelin during the military dictatorship in Argentina, 40 years ago [this past January]. Only recently has confirmation begun to emerge of the long suspected guilt of certain members of the former Argentine military junta.

Just this week, on June 13, Sweden [relatives] will officially commemorate the 65th anniversary of the downing of a DC-3 spy aircraft by a Soviet fighter jet over the Baltic sea. At least four of the eight (possibly 9) men onboard remain unaccounted for. Swedish authorities lied for years about the plane’s true mission and withheld crucial information in the search of the missing crew.

During the summer, on July 17, follows the 60th anniversary of the [release of the] so-called „Smoltsov Report“, the most important document to emerge in the case of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg who disappeared in the Soviet Union in 1945. Allegedly authored in 1947 by Dr. A.L. Smoltsov, head of the Medical Services Department of the Internal (Lubyanka] Prison in Moscow, and released by the Soviet government ten years later, the note claims, rather unconvincingly, that the then 35-year-old Wallenberg suddenly succumbed to a heart attack in his prison cell. What exactly happened to the young Swede who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust, and why the full circumstances of his fate have never been revealed, remains one of the most enduring Cold War mysteries.

As a stark reminder that all past is prologue, September 23 will mark the 16th year of Dawit Isaak’s tragic detention in Eritrea, making him one the world’s longest imprisoned journalists. In spite of the fact that Dawit is a Swedish citizen, neither the Swedish government nor the international community have been able to establish even the most basic facts about his whereabouts or his physical wellbeing. The month of October brings us to the second anniversary of the brutal kidnapping of Swedish-Chinese publisher Gui Minhai by Chinese Security forces in Thailand in 2015. After a few communications received from him by his daughter in the beginning of his detention, his current condition is unknown. And last but not least, on November 25, it will be six long years since Al-Qaida forces in Mali detained Johan Gustafsson who was crossing through the territory on a holiday trip.

The suspected steering of historical inquiry

As concerns the cases pending from WWII and the Cold War, it is clear that important information exists in Russian, Swedish and other international archives that could help discover what happened to the missing men. Why this information remains off limits is a question of central importance for their relatives as well as for historians.

For the families of the disappeared, the single purpose of the various official inquiries conducted after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was to obtain full clarity about the fate of their loved ones. [Undoubtedly] many Swedish and also Russian officials privately shared this goal, yet for them, in their roles as diplomats, a partial resolution was an acceptable ’successful‘ result. There is growing evidence [however] that for the Swedish and Russian governments the primary goal of these investigations was to solve the cases just enough to be able to remove them from the official Swedish-Russian political agenda, (with minimal collateral damage).

That the direction and possibly the outcome of the official inquiries may have been largely predetermined/controlled, is a troubling thought. Worse, family members were repeatedly deceived by their own government, with key information being withheld to this day in a number of private and official intelligence archives.

Roger Älmeberg, the son of DC-3 pilot Alvar Älmeberg, has lost patience with official Swedish declarations. He is especially troubled by the fact that „after sixty-five years we still do not know …how the Soviet decisions ..behind the attack [on the plane] were conceived.“ „As a result,“ he adds, „the wives, parents, siblings and children of the ..crew members were left to ponder the fate of the eight men in unnecessary uncertainty.“

Louise von Dardel, Raoul Wallenberg’s niece, and Kerstin von Seth, daughter of [Sea] Captain Gösta Rudnert whose ship the Sten Sture was lost 70 years ago in the Baltic Sea, share Älmeberg’s frustration. In their view, the Swedish government’s approach in particular has lacked crucial resolve to obtain the hoped for answers. „Swedish officials were mostly concerned with the country’s international prestige and have shown an incredible nonchalance towards the relatives“, says von Seth.

When Captain Rudnert disappeared, along with his 18 men crew, he left behind a wife and three young daughters. On a cold January day in 1947, the Sten Sture had departed from the Polish harbor of Gdansk, with a load of coal, heading for Malmö. The ship never arrived. The official investigation was quickly closed and the crew’s families were left to fend for themselves. Von Seth says her mother never recovered from the trauma/shock. It was only in 1997 that it became publicly known that the ship had, in fact, sunk in Polish territorial waters, [on its way from Gdansk] and not, as had been claimed for decades, off the coast of the Danish island of Bornholm. Swedish authorities had learned this fact already back in 1947, but had done nothing to investigate further.

A year later, in February 1948, two other Swedish ships, Iwan and Kinnekulle, vanished on the same day, carrying 7 and 11 crew members respectively, again in the Baltic Sea. Mary Johansson, wife of the captain of the Kinnekulle, fought in vain for decades to determine the full circumstances of her husband’s disappearance.

In yet another, [earlier] incident, the Bengt Sture which was boarded by Soviet forces in 1942 (during WWII), it has been confirmed that seven of the 14 person crew were taken to the Soviet Union. 75 years later, it is still not clear what happened to them. From 1945 through 1981, thirteen other Swedish ships disappeared, carrying more than 100 men; some falling victim to harsh weather conditions, others vanishing with no clear explanation. No other Scandinavian country suffered similar losses. In many of these cases, important questions remain about some of the men’s involvement in the smuggling of refugees from iron curtain countries, and about broader, top secret Swedish Cold War spying operations [utilizing Swedish ships.]

The Right to the Truth

According to various international conventions and legal norms, such as the U.N. Convention on Enforced Disappearance which was adopted in December 2006 and entered into force in 2010, victims as well as their families have a legally recognized Right to the Truth. But what good is that right if it cannot be enforced?

Full disclosure of past crimes is not only an ethical imperative but a necessary step toward justice. However, the post 9/11 world has seen a steady erosion of the status of human rights, which also affects the investigation of long term (unsolved) disappearances. Human rights advocates face serious challenges to make themselves heard, especially with the international community’s increased focus on security concerns that once again dominate the [bilateral and international political] agenda among states. This shift in focus has led to new and unprecedented alliances between traditional democracies and autocratic regimes.

Another problem is the ascendancy of an ever more integrated, ‚multi-polar‘ global economy, with large businesses and corporations increasingly rivaling and in some cases substituting the traditional roles of state governments. The dramatic shift in power and priorities (combined with the fact that the composition of the U.N. Human Rights Council remains an utter farce), has undoubtedly enhanced the trend towards a more ‚pragmatic‘ or ‚realistic‘ approach to human rights, which tends to deemphasize the fate of individual persons, in the pursuit of more general/comprehensive policies.

At the same time, disclosures by whistleblowers and civic groups in recent years have revealed to the public in great detail the full power and reach of the international intelligence community. Quite obviously, thanks to sophisticated surveillance technology, the full facts of certain events are not only knowable but are almost certainly known. Which begs the question: What information exactly do officials in Sweden and other countries possess about the fate of their missing citizens? One cannot help but conclude that they must have more detailed knowledge than they have shared with the families or the public.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that foreign governments can request to keep certain information related to specific topics and inquiries secret. The Israeli government did so, for example, during the 1980s, when it hesitated to provide specific details in the Wallenberg case(related to witness testimonies), since officials feared they would reveal the nature and extent of Israeli intelligence operations behind the iron curtain. Clearly, countries like Russia, the U.S. or Great Britain may have approached Sweden with similar requests in other pending investigations – and vice versa.

Lost opportunities and the question of ideology

All this highlights the fact that in the modern era, the question at the heart of these historical cases is as current as ever, [namely] what happens when the rights and needs of individuals come into conflict with the broader interests of the state, meaning the community as a whole?

Obviously nobody expected or expects Sweden to jeopardize its security over the fate of its disappeared. But short of such an extreme scenario, what, in fact, are the reasons why the truth about their fate is not known? It may well be in part a question of reputation and prestige. During the Cold War era, both Swedish and Russian officials may have worried that a full scale investigation could expose or possibly escalate a number of highly sensitive historical issues, many of them directly related to Sweden’s neutrality policy. These included information (in the DC-3 case, for example) about the extent of Swedish cooperation with Western projects of intelligence collection about the Soviet Union or even the presence of other Swedish citizens in Soviet imprisonment after World War II, some still possibly unknown.

The Russian leadership in particular may worry what kind of precedent the full revelation of Wallenberg’s fate may set. It could prove to be a watershed for similar investigations by the victims of Stalinist crimes and their families – including the possibly opening the door to large compensation claims. Or just as importantly, it could collapse the tight control the Putin regime exerts over access to historical and other key information in Russia.

As regards Sweden, one unsolved question is whether any ideological considerations may have prevented an earlier resolution of the Wallenberg case. Why, for example, was the arrest of Swedish Air Force Colonel Stig Wennerström as a Soviet agent in 1963 not used more directly by the Swedish government to demand answers from Russia about any of the pending Swedish Cold War mysteries?

In his recently published diaries, the former Legal Advisor to the Swedish Foreign Ministry, Ambassador Bo Theutenberg, [Some observers] raises the question how much influence still unknown KGB and Stasi infiltrators may have had on the decision making process in official Swedish institutions during the Cold War years and beyond.[1] It is worth noting that Wennerström’s helpers in Sweden have never been identified. Again, all relevant documents remain firmly classified.

Principled talk, pragmatic actions

Aside from these issues, it is clear that the unequal power relationship between a small country like Sweden and giants like Russia or modern day China obviously also imposed and continue to impose serious obstacles for officials seeking answers. However, the fact that Sweden, a much sought after [international] political and economic partner, apparently cannot make itself heard, even by a weak country like Eritrea, is troubling. In the Dawit Isaak case, after sixteen long years, the Swedish government continues to pursue a policy of silent diplomacy which has produced no tangible results. Lacking any apparent sense of urgency, Swedish officials have so far failed to apply some of the important diplomatic and legal levers they do posses, like the option to sanction or expel Eritrean diplomats (as was done by Britain and Canada in response to various violations by the Eritrean government), or seeking the arrest of members of the Eritrean leadership under the principle of ‚universal jurisdiction‘ which allows countries to prosecute human rights violators even if the crime was committed abroad; (as Switzerland just demonstrated with the arrest on its territory of the fugitive leader of The Gambia.)

The Swedish government argues that its actions are borne out of concern for Dawit Isaak’s safety. It is currently impossible for his family to assess the veracity of these claims or if they are mainly prompted by the wish to cover up the paucity of results.

In lieu of punitive measures, Swedish political and business leaders insist that bilateral trade as well as economic aid furthers good relations and opens up important channels of communications. Björn Tunbäck, a Board Member of the Swedish section of Reporters Without Borders (RUG) and one of the leaders of the campaign to win Isaak’s release, does not argue with the theory, but sees no real follow through of the idea in practice.“If diplomats do not show any willingness to use these channels,“ he says, „they become meaningless. During aid negotiations between the EU and Eritrea Dawit Isaak’s name was not included in the official instructions given to Swedish representatives, not in 2009, nor in 2015. Yet [the chance of] opening talks with Eritrea was specifically cited as an argument for delivery of the aid package.

In fact, in 2015/16, as part of a new policy of ‚partnership‘ and ‚engagement‘ with Eritrea, which required no truly significant concessions from the Afewerki government on human rights, Sweden quietly went along with the E.U. to nearly double the financial aid to the country, from a total of approximately €120 (for the 2008-2013 period; only half was apparently dispersed) to €200 million. Other than the construction of a number of gleaming Potemkin villages that E.U. representatives are allowed to tour, this policy, too, has yielded nothing. On the contrary, President Afewerki felt emboldened enough to jail two more Eritrean journalists as recently as February 14.

Contrast Sweden’s approach with the forceful public representation made by Germany’s Foreign Minister on behalf of Turkish-German journalist Deniz Yücel, detained this past February on charges of espionage in Turkey. Or the determination shown by U.S. businessman William Browder in his fight to punish the Russian officials responsible for the 2009 murder of one of his employees, the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. In 2012, Browder successfully rallied U.S. lawmakers to pass the so-called „Magnitsky Act“ which inflicts personal sanctions on any Russian official implicated in Magnitsky’s murder (by imposing a U.S. visa ban and freezing their U.S. bank accounts). Browder is currently seeking a global expansion of the law which would provide important new leverage for human rights defenders.

The fact is that Sweden has shown little willingness to pay any price or incur any cost whatsoever for the release of Dawit Isaak. One can argue about the causes and merits of this decision (with a myriad of interests competing in the Horn of Africa) but the Swedish government’s official rhetoric, portraying itself as a committed and principled defender of human rights, frequently does not appear to match its mostly pragmatic actions. Unfortunately, a similar pattern appears to be emerging in the official handling of the case of Gui Minhai. Nevertheless, Gui’s daughter Angela, who leads the campaign for his release, hopes for more decisive steps on his behalf, as she noted in a recent op-ed article: „Perhaps those countries that are usually so quick to assert their democratic values will take responsibility toward their citizens and will demand concrete actions of China, instead of repeating empty condemnations.“

No access to key information

For the other families, Gui’s wish echoes many of their own concerns. In the earlier DC-3 case, four men may have survived the plane’s crash into the Baltic Sea in 1952. Secret signal intelligence data that almost certainly includes cockpit voice recordings obtained by both Swedish and Russian military entities, as well as photographs [taken by the attacking Soviet MiG and Soviet Navy vessels present in the location where the plane went down,] could solve the mystery of their possible survival as well as provide decisive clues about the plane’s true mission. However, more than six decades after the events neither country appears willing to pursue the release of the relevant documentation, and key archival collections in both countries remain inaccessible.

In the Wallenberg case, Swedish officials apparently knew as early as early as 1992 that Russia did not release crucial information to an official bilateral Working Group which included Wallenberg’s brother, Dr. Guy von Dardel. They also knew that the (then) KGB had actively intervened to stop the access by two Russian historians to crucial document collections, yet Swedish officials did not protest the interference.

It is also clear that Russia possesses important information regarding the background of the Wallenberg case, including crucial foreign intelligence reports that would shed light on the reasons for Wallenberg’s arrest. This information also concerns, among other things, the full extent of contacts between Raoul Wallenberg and his famous relatives, the bankers Jacob and Marcus Wallenberg. For largely unexplained reasons, the Swedish government has not insisted on accessing this material.

Why the Wallenbergs have never chosen to bring their considerable influence and resources to bear in the search of their own relative is yet another question mark. In Sweden, too, important collections in both official [intelligence] and several private archives remain classified, including those of the Wallenberg family.

Relatives of the missing can be forgiven for wondering at what point such a restricted approach, intentional or not, makes diplomats/officials indirectly complicit in the crime? Or at least guilty of serious neglect? As Dawit’s brother, Esayas Isaak, puts it, „nobody blames the Swedish government for not being able to free Dawit. But we do wonder if officials have done or are currently doing everything possible to rescue him.“ That the Swedish government can and will act decisively, especially when public pressure demands it, was proved in 2012, when it successfully negotiated the release of two Swedish journalists from custody in Ethiopia, and just last year, when it secured the release of human rights activist Peter Dahlin from China.

Time will show what considerations exactly have guided the actions of officials over the years and if there were any preferred outcomes for the various investigations. A related question is if (in the Cold War cases) the Swedish and Russian governments ever had an unspoken agreement or understanding to keep the result of the inquiries within ‘safe’ parameters, and what internal and external considerations continue to play a role for these inquiries today.

One of the hallmarks of democratic states is that they value and protect the rights of every individual. In Russia, a country where civil liberties have been under serious assault for years, Team 29, a group of young lawyers and journalists have been at the forefront of this battle. Taking their name from Article 29 of the Russian Constitution (which guarantees Russian citizens the right of freedom of expression), they represent ordinary citizens who find themselves accused and convicted of the most grievous crimes, such as espionage or treason, for simple acts like sending out a job application to a foreign company or criticizing Russian President Vladimir Putin in an SMS sent to a friend. Team 29 is also assisting historians who challenge Russian authorities to comply with existing laws governing secrecy and access to historical records.

The fight continues, as a matter of principle

In the coming months, the relatives of Raoul Wallenberg and other disappeared Swedes are intending to test their formal Right to the Truth, in Russia and in Sweden, in a renewed effort to demand justice for their loved ones.

At an official Raoul Wallenberg International Roundtable to be held in September they will discuss how to effectively coordinate their efforts. In the Wallenberg case, members of his family and researchers will submit a comprehensive catalogue of all currently pending questions and request in Sweden to Swedish authorities. A similar list was presented to Russian government and archival representatives last year in Moscow.

Families of the disappeared also intend to call on the Swedish Parliament (Riksdag) to hold official hearings about the handling of some of the cases and to ask lawmakers to assist their efforts to obtain access to information that will finally allow them to find the certainty and peace of mind they have been seeking for so long. „For us, the search continues as a matter of principle,“ says Louise von Dardel: “ We, the families, including new generations, will not be satisfied until we have full answers.“

This article first appeared in Svenska Dagbladet on June 20, 2017


[1] Bo J. Theutenberg, Dagbok från UD. Vol. 1 and 2 Skara: Solveigs Tryckeri, 2012 and 2014.

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