Sweden’s prime minister has condemned his country’s own version of the Cologne mass sexual assault allegations and alleged police cover-up, calling claims of similar events at a youth festival in Stockholm “a double betrayal” of women and a “big democratic problem”.
Swedish police promised an urgent investigation into the claims first reported by liberal newspaper Dagens Nyheter that a gang of youths — reportedly mostly from Afghanistan — groped and molested girls as young as 11 or 12 at the We Are Sthlm festival in both 2014 and 2015.
“We shall not close our eyes and look away. We need to deal with such a serious problem,” Stefan Lofven, Sweden’s centre-left prime minister, said on Monday.
The claims have not yet been confirmed. But as in Germany, where a mass sex assault allegedly took place in Cologne on New Year’s eve, a political storm has broken out in Sweden over the alleged cover-up. The Sweden Democrats, an anti-immigration party that in recent months has periodically topped opinion polls, has led the criticism. Referring to the cover-up allegations, Peter Agren, who was in charge of policing at the festival, was reported by Dagens Nyheter as saying: “This is a sore point. We sometimes dare not to say how it is because we think it might play into the hands of the Sweden Democrats.”
The Stockholm police report on the event in 2015 said there had been “relatively few crimes”.
Two things to note.
First, we don’t yet know for sure what did happen at the festivals. Second, we need to know more about the context of Agren’s remarks.
Meanwhile the BBC quotes Varg Gyllander, the head of communications for the Stockholm police:
“These days, the level of discussion is very harsh, and it’s very aggressive when it comes to discussing the matter of refugees and foreigners. I think that all of us are very careful how we express ourselves.”
But he denied there had been any kind of cover up.
According to Sweden’s Dagens Nyheter newspaper, from the very first day of We are Sthlm, a free festival held last August for 13-19 year olds, police were aware of gangs of young Afghan men surrounding and sexually harassing girls. The 2014 event had seen a similar wave of assaults, the paper said.
In an internal police memo seen by the newspaper, officers identified a group of approximately 50 men, “so-called refugee youths, predominantly from Afghanistan,” whom they suspected of being behind the attacks, adding that “several of the gang were arrested for sexual harassment”.
Despite a record number of girls reporting crimes, police made no mention of the phenomenon in the report on the festival posted to their website, which said instead only that there had been “relatively few crimes and few arrests given the number of attendants”.
Judging by these reports, it does already seem (to me) that something went badly awry and that the police were indeed, at the very least, “very careful” about what they told the public, a striking lapse in a country that prides itself on its openness, a lapse that already would be worrying enough even without the specifically political angle allegedly described by Mr Agren.
And if there was that angle, Sweden’s prime minister is quite right to talk about a “big democratic problem”, but he would do better to admit that it is one that has been there for a while. I’ve written quite a few times on this corner about the dramatic rise of the Sweden Democrats, a party of distinctly unsavory origins that rose more or less out of nowhere to take advantage of the refusal of any significant political party to deviate from Sweden’s essentially open doors approach to asylum-seekers. In 2010 the SD crossed the 5 percent threshold and made it into parliament. The initial response of some in the political establishment was to see if the parliamentary rule book could be changed to deny the party the seats on parliamentary committees to which it was entitled.
Whatever one might think of the election results and whatever one might think of Sweden Democrats, the establishment parties seem to be behaving in a way that may not only turn out to be counterproductive, but also says little that’s good about their understanding of how a democracy is meant to work. They need to win the debate — not change the rules.
Since then, we have seen repeated attempts by the Swedish establishment to somehow shut the SD out of the regular democratic game at the very time it should have been encouraged to play it. It’s not hard to see how this could have created a climate in which crime reports might (again, this has yet to be proved) have been drafted in a way that reflected—how can I put this—establishment priorities.
If that was the case, it wasn’t very smart: if there’s one thing that fuels an outsider party it is the confirmation that they are indeed outsiders (as the SD’s rise shows). And if there’s one thing that unsettles an already uneasy public—and sets the rumor mill turning— it is the perception that it is being kept in the dark.
I note this from the FT’s report:
Bjorn Soder, a senior Sweden Democrats MP, added: “It is a scandal without equal. This must be investigated immediately. Could this be something that happened at several locations in the country, that they do not bother to tell you certain things because it could ‘play into the hands of a particular party’?”
Meanwhile, as Dagens Nyheter notes here, there was an interesting development last month in Gävle, a town in central Sweden. The report is in Swedish, but the key to the story is that the center-right Moderates, the party (defeated at the last general election) that did so much to shape Sweden’s immigration policy over the last decade, has won control of the town’s administration with the tacit support of the SD, a move that (according to the report) was approved by the Moderates’ national leadership.
This could be a one-off in a smallish town. Then again, especially given the pattern seen in other Nordic countries, it might be an interesting precedent.
Time will tell.