STOCKHOLM: War criminals and human rights violators from Afghanistan, Africa, the Middle East and the Balkans find refuge in Sweden where they are protected from repatriation and never prosecuted, officials and activists say. A respected voice on human rights which is quick to denounce abuses abroad, Sweden was one of the most vocal European Union members demanding in March that Croatia find war crime suspect Ante Gotovina before starting negotiations to join the EU.

But Sweden itself has only one policeman investigating human rights abusers who have found refuge on its own soil. He reckons as many as 1,000 live here, protected from deportation by a UN convention and with little risk of being brought to justice.

“If someone sits down and goes through the immigration files he or she will easily find several hundred or maybe a thousand potential war criminals,” detective superintendent Hans Olvebro, the Swedish police’s one-man war crimes unit, told Reuters.

Human rights groups say the situation undermines Sweden’s international reputation as a pioneer in asylum law and has led to cases where victims of torture who have found refuge here have bumped into their tormentors on the streets of Stockholm.

It contrasts with the government’s recent refusal to stop the deportation of about 150 child asylum-seekers suffering from trauma and depression. It argued that bending the rules would only encourage more such cases.

Frida Blom of human rights group Swedish Peace called it “really hollow” for Sweden to tout itself as a champion of the persecuted but have one person investigating war crimes whereas Denmark has a Special International Crimes Office with 17 staff.

Denmark set up the unit to investigate former Iraqi army chief Nizar al-Khazraji, suspected of chemical weapons attacks on Kurds under Saddam Hussein. Seeking refuge in Denmark, he was put under house arrest there but went missing in 2003.

Olvebro, whose 39 years on the force include 2-1/2 years investigating war crimes in Bosnia for The Hague tribunal, said suspects came from conflict areas of the 1980s and 1990s such as Afghanistan, the Balkans, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran and Africa.

Human rights groups believe Sweden is home, for example, to members of the Khad, Afghanistan’s secret police under Communist rule in the 1980s when 50,000 people were killed. Two Khad men in the Netherlands were accused of war crimes there last month.

They also believe it shelters members of the South Lebanon Army, a Christian-led militia set up by Israel in 1985, accused of torturing and killing Palestinians and Lebanese. When Israel pulled out in 2000 its commanders fled, some of them to Europe.

In a sample Olvebro took of 500 arrivals from a country he would not name, half were “military, police, politicians or maybe doctors who worked in prisons” warranting investigation.

But the Migration Board rarely reports cases to the police. With no routine checks, screening depends on “anonymous tip-offs or information from some organisation that someone is suspect”, the Board’s deputy director Lars-Gunnar Lundh said.

Even when they are reported, Olvebro only has the capacity to investigate “a handful” of cases. Meanwhile the suspects are at liberty and some even win Swedish citizenship, he said.

JEWISH ANGER: Sweden has never in modern times put anyone on trial for war crimes. It angered Jewish Nazi hunters at the Simon Wiesenthal Centre by refusing to investigate 100-200 suspected Baltic Nazi collaborators who fled here after World War II.

The country was bound by a 25-year statute of limitations on all crimes — which it plans to drop soon under a 1998 Rome treaty scrapping such limitations for crimes against humanity.

The Geneva Convention forbids giving anyone suspected of war crimes or crimes against humanity asylum, but at the same time Sweden is a signatory of a UN torture convention which outlaws repatriating anyone likely to be tortured in their homeland.

Like other states, Sweden gives such people permits to stay, but rights groups say it falls short of EU requirements that the police and immigration departments be equipped to prosecute any war criminals discovered on European soil.

Amnesty International’s Carl Soderbergh said there was a “legal limbo” in Sweden for fugitive war criminals.

Immigration Minister Barbro Holmberg said Olvebro’s estimate was “an exaggeration” but there was a “small number” of war criminals in Sweden “kept under surveillance all the time”.

The Social Democrat government, already criticised by rights groups, charities and the church over the asylum children, has quietly begun to review its screening and reporting procedures, said Migration Board, justice and foreign ministry officials.—Reuters