FECL 52 (December 1997):


The case of Torsten Leander, who lost his job in 1979 after having been declared a "security risk" has triggered a debate in Sweden on the role of Säpo, the Swedish security police. The recent disclosure of Leander's Säpo -file appears to confirm long-standing suspicions that the security police is registering people on the grounds of their political opinion. But the government is resisting calls for a full inquiry into Säpos surveillance activities. Is the Leander case "history", as the government claims?

In 1979, young Torsten Leander was dismissed (without notice) from his job as a carpenter at the Swedish Marine's Naval Museum in Karlskrona. The only explanation given to Leander was that he was being considered a "security risk" by Säpo - the Swedish security police. Leander had no possibility to seek legal remedy against his sudden dismissal since Säpo denied him access to his own file. Therefore, his lawyer, Dennis Töllborg, filed a complaint to the European Commission for Human Rights (EComHR) in Strasbourg. Töllborg argued that Swedish authorities had denied his client a fair hearing and thereby breached Article 13 (right to legal remedy) of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The Leander case eventually ended up at the European Court for Human Rights (EcourtHR).


European Court of Human Rights dismisses the case

Against the will of the complainant, the Court decided to extend its deliberations to the question of whether Säpo's general registration practice was in compliance with the Convention (Articles 8 and 10) or not. Thereby, an issue of little interest for Torsten Leander came into the focus of the Court's deliberations; specifically, was the Swedish vetting system and its extent "strictly necessary" for maintaining national security, and was vetting carried out in accordance with the law? In essence, two factual circumstances were decisive for the outcome of the case.

For the first, Leander claimed that the extent of vetting in Sweden was far beyond what was necessary, let alone "strictly necessary" in the interest of national security. While refusing, on alleged national security grounds, to give any detailed figures, the two representatives of the Swedish government refuted Leander's claim of more than 100,000 vetting procedures being carried out in Sweden every year as exaggerated and stated that personnel controls did not amount to "anywhere near this figure". The government representatives refused to answer lawyer Töllborg's question whether Leander had been sacked due to his leftist opinions, by referring to national security.

For the second, the Swedish government representatives also refuted as "certainly not correct" Leander's claim that a provision in the Swedish ordinance on personnel control actually prohibits the communication of any substantial information to the vetted person concerned.

The above two statements of the Swedish government representatives were pivotal in the case's decision. In 1987, 8 years after Leander was sacked, the Court dismissed the complaint on the grounds that Leander had failed to clearly substantiate that his dismissal was due to his political opinions. The Court further found that the Swedish National Police Board provided a major safeguard against abusive registration by Säpo.


Government representatives lied to the Court

In 1990 it became clear that the two Swedish government representatives had deliberately lied to the EcourtHR. A report published by the Säpo-kommission, a committee of inquiry into the security police set up by the government, showed that the average number of vetting procedures per year carried out by Säpo actually largely exceeded 100,000 most years and amounted to 410,000 in 1989. Moreover, the committee stated unanimously that the Swedish ordinance on personnel control "gives the impression that the main rule is that the controlled person is to be communicated the facts of the case, when the truth is that in practice it is the reverse...".


Leander's "crime": leftist opinion

Ten years after the verdict of the ECourtHR, the Leander case is once again drawing public attention. In October 1997, the Swedish government at last approved a renewed request made by Dennis Töllborg, who is now a professor of law at the Gothenburg School of Economics, for disclosure of Säpo's Leander file. When Töllborg read the file at the Säpo headquarters in Stockholm, he saw all his suspicions confirmed. It showed that Leander had been registered for the first time by Säpo in 1970, at the age of 19, because he had been seen selling the Vietnam-Bulletin. This was the joint publication of a multitude of organisations participating in Sweden's largest post-war movement, the mass-protest against the US war against Vietnam. "At that time, we all sold the Vietnam-bulletin, irrespective our political affiliations", says professor Töllborg. "Even members of the conservative party sold it."

Later entries in Leander's Säpo file mentioned items such as his car having been seen parked in front of a hall where a radical left magazine was holding its annual meeting, and his membership in a Marxist party. This apparently sufficed for Säpo to regard the young man's employment as a carpenter in a museum open to the public as a national security risk. The file made no mention of the fact that Leander had already been excluded from the marxist party for deviation because of his opposition to the party line. Further, this exclusion existed when he sought the job at the museum.


Political snooping widespread

The disclosure of Säpo's file on Leander has fuelled long-standing suspicions that the security police have never stopped their practice of registering people on the grounds of their political opinion, although, this is prohibited by law since the 1960s.

Already in 1966, the large circulation (evening newspaper) Aftonbladet revealed that Säpo had registered around 300,000 persons because of their opinions or their political contacts. The register comprised popular artists and actors, suspected of being communist "sympathisers" - people such as the renowned author and anti-apartheid activist Per Wästberg (because of his contacts with South African politicians in exile in Sweden), and the than leader of the centre-right Folkpartiet. Aftonbladet's revelations were based on a leak within the security police.

At that time Säpo bluntly denied the very existence of any such "political" register, but the scandal led to a reorganisation of the agency and new legislation officially aimed at ensuring a better control of its activities. However, ever since, individual cases have continuously come to light, suggesting that political registration was actually going on. Whenever public criticism became to loud, the government reacted by setting up commissions of inquiry and proposing minor organisational and legal changes. Most of these measures had no other effect than temporarily improving Säpo's poor image in the Swedish public.


Calls for a "truth commission"

The new row around the Leander case has once again led to calls for a thorough inquiry by an independent "truth commission" into the security police, but the Social Democrat government, supported by the largest opposition party, the conservative right Moderaterna, is showing reticence. Minister of Justice Leila Freivalds is arguing that the Leander case is history and that legislative and organisational changes following earlier inquiries were a sufficient guarantee preventing abusive registration. "This is pure nonsense", says professor Töllborg. "When Säpo's registration of anti-Nazi circles during World War II was revealed in the 1950s, we were told that things were bad in the past, but now every thing is fine. We were told the same thing in the 1970s and again in the 1980s. We just cannot go on blinding ourselves to the weight of repetitive evidence".


No right to see your own file

The truth about the Leander file would never have emerged without the long-standing campaign run by the journalist and present Swedish press ombudsman, Pär-Arne Jigenius. For several years, Jigenius had vainly sought access to Säpo files concerning a leading figure of Swedish anti-Nazism in World War II. His requests were regularly turned down, since the prevailing law on police registers did not provide for the disclosure of Säpo files. But, the government eventually gave in to mounting pressure. According to a new provision in the police registers law in force since July 1996, the government may decide in particular cases to disclose files to individual applicants for the purpose of "scientific research". Consequently, professor Töllborg made a new request for access to the Leander file, which was approved in October.

Töllborg, however, points out that the new provision in no way establishes any right of persons concerned to be granted access to their own files. "It would have been difficult for the government to turn down my request for access to the files", he says, "since, as a scholar, I was entitled to access on scientific research grounds. If Leander had made the request himself, it would very probably have been turned down".

In the meantime the government has decided to grant Mr Leander 400,000 Swedish crowns in satisfaction for moral and economic damage suffered as a consequence of his registration. But, there is growing evidence suggesting that many others had their careers affected by Säpo's abusive registration and vetting practices. As long as the two leading political parties continue to obstruct a comprehensive independent inquiry into the records of Säpo, the chances for redress are slim.


Sources: Aftonbladet, 2.11.97; Falu Kuriren, 6.11.97; Reports on Swedish TV and radio, November and December 97; 'Some hypotheses on significant features of security policing'; by prof. D. Töllborg, Gothenburg, May 1997; interview with prof. Töllborg, 25.11.97; our sources.




There are two dimensions to Sweden's "snooping affair". One dimension concerns history, the other concerns the situation today; in particular, the current development of pro-active surveillance in Sweden in the context of European police cooperation.

As opposed to e.g. Norway and Switzerland, where investigative commissions have brought much light into these states' snooping activities in the period between the end of World War II and the fall of the Berlin wall, Sweden's political establishment seems very reluctant to cast full light on this dark side of the country's history.


Surveillance in the past: cooperation with the German Gestapo and anti-communist witch hunt

The little that is known - thanks to leaks, scientific research and investigative journalism - is disquieting enough. During World War II, Säpo systematically cooperated with the German Gestapo. Säpo industriously registered Anti-Nazi activists and extradited Norwegian freedom fighters hiding in Sweden to Germany...while showing little interest for widespread pro-Nazi activities in the country. After the war, and until the late eighties, surveillance measures focussed not only on declared and alleged communists, but also on other political opponents of successive Social Democrat governments.

Immigrants are another group in the focus of Säpo's surveillance activities. In recent years, foreigners lawfully residing in Sweden were repeatedly deported or subjected to other severe measures of constraint after having been labelled a "security risk" by Säpo. In none of these cases were the persons concerned informed of the specific grounds of Säpo's "verdict".


Surveillance today: the fight against crime as a pretext

Säpo's practice of snooping on foreigners not suspected of any criminal behaviour is well-documented. But, somewhat remarkably, the question of whether and on what grounds Swedish citizens too are currently being registered has drawn very little debate thus far. Justice Minister Leila Freivalds has repeatedly stated that nobody any longer is being registered "merely" on the grounds of his opinions; that a new Leander case is therefore impossible. Concurrently, Ms Freivalds holds that the very registration of Leander by Säpo was in accordance with the law. Indeed, formally speaking, Leander's registration ensued not from his political opinion, but his contacts with political organisations that, from Säpo's Cold War perspective, constituted a threat to State security...although they never engaged in any unlawful activities. In other words, Leander was not registered merely because of his political opinion.

One should have this in mind in assessing the risk of continued political registration in Sweden and elsewhere.


New legislation to provide for the surveillance of non-suspects

In fact, the Swedish government is currently pushing hard the introduction of new legislation authorising the police (not just Säpo) to put under surveillance and register people not suspected of any crime. Before the public, the new powers for the police are being justified with the need to fight against various forms of "organised crime", and in particular the criminal activities of motor cycle gangs, paedophiles, and Nazi groups - all of which have been highly publicised by the Swedish mass media. Sceptics are referred to Sweden's participation in Europol which, according to the government's interpretation, binds the Swedish police to provide Europol with intelligence concerning persons not suspected of any offence. This includes possible witnesses and victims, as well as contacts and sources of information in connection with a criminal investigation by Europol.

While the Europol Convention does not allow the registration of persons in the agency's registers merely on the grounds of their political opinion, belief, race, sexual behaviour or health, it does authorise the registration of such sensitive information, whenever the initial registration of the person concerned has been caused by his assumed relation to criminal suspects and possible future criminals under investigation.

In practice, this is likely to open wide the door to extensive registration of innocent citizens' opinions.


Pro-active policing opens the door to political policing

As a matter of fact, authorising pro-active policing, i.e. intelligence gathering on non-suspects, is tantamount to accepting political policing. There is nothing to suggest that this logic would not apply to Sweden. The difference as compared with the past, is that regular police are gradually being allowed to use extensive preventive intelligence gathering, reserved to Säpo and other secret services before.

Comprehensive intelligence gathering by State security agencies, including snooping on politically "interesting" people, is likely to go on as long as states and governments exist. Attempts to prohibit such activities by law, such as the referendum campaign in Switzerland for the abolition of the State security police, are doomed to fail. As long as there are states and governments, there is a market for snooping activities. If these activities cannot be run legally, they are run illegally. What is more, a majority of citizens are probably prepared to accept such comprehensive intelligence gathering in the interest of State security as long as this does not affect their lives and careers. But, they should definitively not accept that innocent people suffer serious punishment-like damage resulting from such registration without knowing why and, as a consequence, without a chance of legal remedy. That is exactly what happened to Torsten Leander. Ironically, Leander learned about the very existence of his Säpo-file only by accident. Had the director of the Naval Museum in Karlskrona followed the regulations, Leander would have been subjected to vetting before being employed and simply been denied the job with any need for an explanation. In other words, without the museum director's blunder, there would never have been a "Leander case".