FECL 52 (December 1997):

DEATHS IN CUSTODY... AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL REPORTS ON SWEDEN

The following article is based on Amnesty International's report on the circumstances surrounding the death in Swedish police custody of Osmo Vallo, as well as the additional deaths of eleven other individuals in the custody of police or security guards...

It was the end of May, about 11 at night, when police in the Swedish town of Karlstad were called to investigate a disturbance. Spring had come to Sweden, and apparently 41 year old Osmo Vallo had over-celebrated its coming - he was reportedly both drunk and under the influence of drugs.

Through his fog of intoxication, Vallo saw two men approaching him...indications are he became apprehensive. The men had a police dog with them. Vallo, apparently feeling threatened at their manner, and uncertain about their identity, was quoted by a witness as asking, "Why are you doing this to me? Can I see your identification badge please?".

Although witnesses later reported that Osmo Vallo was neither violent nor threatening towards the police, their reply to his request for identification was a kick in the back by one of the officers. Apparently stunned by the blow, Vallo began walking towards the entrance of a nearby apartment building, Basnungatan 48. The police dog - which had been leashed - was now set on Vallo by the officers; it proceeded to bite him on his arms repeatedly. Osmo Vallo managed to fend the animal off, and somehow reached the building entranceway. Seemingly desperate, Vallo knocked on doors and begged for help - Amnesty reports that circumstances indicate the only immediate response Vallo received was that the police once again set their dog on him.

 

After "the Commotion"

The next time witnesses clearly note seeing Osmo Vallo it was after "the commotion" in the entranceway. Vallo was lying on the ground with his hands cuffed behind him; he seemed to be having difficulty breathing. Reports indicate that one Officer, in an apparent state of anger, "kept pushing his foot into Osmo Vallo's left side and shoulder...abusing him and telling him to get up". Witnesses then report this Officer stamped his foot onto the middle of the prostrate Vallo's back, and they "heard a noise as if something inside Osmo Vallo's upper body had cracked". Further, a witness reported he saw an Officer kick Vallo in the head.

The "seemingly unconscious" Vallo was now dragged outside where the Officers "laid him motionless, still face down, on the grass". The Officers realized he was not breathing and called an ambulance - witnesses state that at no time did the Officers attempt to resuscitate Vallo. Shortly, the Officers laid Vallo (still handcuffed and face down) on the back seat of their car and proceeded to the hospital. Despite hospital resuscitation attempts, Osmo Vallo was pronounced dead at 12:20AM, May 31, 1995.

 

Witnesses asked to "keep quiet"

Several of the witnesses at the 48 Basnungatan apartments were asked by the police to keep quiet about what they had just seen. The first post-mortem examination was performed in June 1995 by Dr. Erik Edston (Department of Forensic Medicine, Linköping), and recorded "39 signs of wounds and bruises on Osmo Vallo's face, arms and legs and dog-bites on various parts of his body".

Quoting Amnesty International's report, there are " great discrepancies between the account of the incident given by eye-witnesses and that of the police". In example, contrary to witness testimony, the police officers claimed that Osmo Vallo seemed "excited and violent" upon their arrival. Further, the Officer's went on to indicate that "although they warned Vallo that they were going to unleash the dog, he tried to kick both police officers and the police dog. As a result, he was bitten by the dog." However, in seeming refutation of their account, in April 1996, both police officers were "convicted of causing bodily injury to Osmo Vallo in connection with their failure to exercise control over the dog and the resulting dog-bite injuries on him."

 

Failure to Provide Key Material

As investigation into Vallo's death proceeded, the first autopsy reached no conclusion about the cause of death; however, "the complete police investigation, containing the above-mentioned eye-witnesses' statements, was not sent to the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Linköping before the final report was announced". The failure to provide key material and information necessary to properly evaluate the Vallo case is a recurrent theme which, for all intents and purposes, served to effectively obstruct those attempting to accurately assess the true extent and nature of Osmo Vallo's injuries and the cause of his death.

Dr. Göran Sköld and Dr. Robert Grundin, respectively of the Departments of Forensic Medicine in Lund and Stockholm, at the request of the Vallo family assessed the way Osmo's case had been handled. According to Amnesty International, they were denied access to eye-witness reports "that Osmo Vallo had been kicked and stamped upon by the police...nor was any such information given orally".

 

No Disciplinary Proceedings

Although the two Officers involved in the arrest of Osmo Vallo were convicted of "causing bodily injury" to Vallo, they were fined and remained on duty. No disciplinary proceedings were initiated against them...questions continued to be raised about the circumstances surrounding Vallo's death.

On May 5th, 1997, the Swedish delegation to the UN Committee against Torture testified that "there were doubts as to whether the case had been fully resolved". A second autopsy on Vallo had been performed on January 17th, 1997 by Dr. Göran Sköld, with Dr. Robert Grundin, Prof. Jorn Simonsen (Institute of Forensic Medicine, Copenhagen University), and Prof. Pekka Saukko (Institute of Forensic Medicine Turku Academy, Finland) in attendance. Five rib fractures missed by the first post-mortem were discovered. In a letter dated April 30, 1997, Kurt Roos (Director General of the National Board of Forensic Medicine, Stockholm) stated the arresting Officers' conduct had been "remarkable", and that it "begged the question whether their behaviour was in compliance with their own code of conduct".

 

Postural Asphyxia

While the first autopsy had reached no conclusions as regards the cause of death, the second post mortem provided a strong basis to conclude that "the probable cause of death could have been postural asphyxia of a person already affected by ethanol and amphetamines or cannabis". Dr. Michael Baden, the noted independent forensic pathologist and New York Medical Examiner, was interviewed by Swedish television's investigative news show "Striptease" as regards his feelings on procedural questions surrounding the case, as well as to the ultimate cause of Vallo's death.

Dr. Baden was extremely critical of the repeated failure to provide complete information regarding Vallo's death to those performing the autopsies, and noted that "the fact that he (Vallo) died right after somebody stood on his back is perfectly consistent with suffocation or traumatic chest compression". Substantiating Baden's contentions as regards Vallo's death, the Amnesty report further notes a memo from the Chairman of the New York Commission of Correction highlighting that procedures similar to those apparently followed by the arresting Officers can lead to "asphyxial death, sometimes in less than 30 seconds."

In May 1997 Regional Public Prosecutor Folke Ljungwall closed the review of the case - the decision was widely criticized. In August 1997, Ismo Salmi, the lawyer acting for the Vallo family, lodged an appeal with the Prosecutor General requesting him to reconsider the Regional Prosecutor's decision.

 

A Violation of International Treaty

The Amnesty report concludes by outlining recommendations to both address the Osmo Vallo case and other similar deaths, as well as to preclude the future repetition of these tragedies. In illustrating the severity of this issue, Amnesty notes that - based on the numerous witness statements - it believes the conduct of the two arresting Officers was so egregious as to have "violated Sweden's treaty obligations under international law". Specifically, Amnesty cites violations of the "UN Convention against Torture", the "International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights", and the "European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms".

 

Source: AI Report: Sweden: Osmo Vallo - Action needed to prevent more deaths in custody, AI index: Eur 42/01/97.