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Home / Politics / News /  Sten Lindstrom | Now is the time to speak again

Sten Lindstrom, the former head of Swedish police who led the investigations into the Bofors affairs, revealed himself as the secret source for the investigative stories that blew the lid off the scandal in an interview with Chitra Subramaniam-Duella that appeared on media website thehoot.org.

He leaked more than 350 documents to Subramaniam-Duella, then with The Hindu and later with The Indian Express and The Statesman.

The documents included payment instructions to banks, open and secret contracts, hand-written notes, minutes of meetings and an explosive diary. Edited excerpts:

Why have you decided to identify yourself now?

Twenty five years is a good landmark. We have had some time for reflection. Now it is time to speak again. Corruption levels in the world are increasing. There is new business around corruption with companies selling products that measure corruption instead of questioning why it is there in the first place. In a world of shrinking resources and ruthless ambition, we have to ensure that survival instincts that brought us out of the caves do not push us back in there because of a few greedy people. I hope, I can contribute to the global struggle against corruption by sharing what I know.

Tell us something about yourself.

Like many Swedes of my generation, my wife Eva and I were raised in the best traditions of social democracy. Swedes are hard-working people. Equity and justice for all is something we hold dear and for which we have strived as a nation. We built our institutions, our political and social systems around principles that were gold standards. We led the world as much in business forums as in the social arena.

Breaking cover: Sten Lindstrom.

The managing director of Bofors, Martin Ardbo, had worked very hard for this deal. He brought over 900 jobs to Karlskoga where Bofors is headquartered for at least a decade. When the stories started appearing, Ardbo was a shaken man. He knew that I knew that he had made a political payment even more secretly than the rest to close this deal. He told me he didn’t have a choice.

How did the India angle in Bofors crop up?

It was an accident. We were conducting several search and seize operations in the premises of Bofors and their executives. I have some experience in this area, so I asked my team to take everything they could find. In the pile were one set of documents to Swiss banks with instructions that the name of the recipient should be blocked out. An accountant doing his job asked why anonymity was necessary since the payments were legal. Bofors was unable to explain and then we found more and more documents leading to India.

Looking back, what would you say are some of the lessons learnt?

There are several, but I could mention a few. The role of the whistle-blower is a part of democracy. When all official channels are clogged, you have to take a decision. We have a culture here that it is okay to blow the whistle. I have met other whistle-blowers. I knew what I was doing when I leaked the documents to you. I could not count on my government or Bofors or the government of India to get to the bottom of this. My only option was to leak the documents to someone we could trust.

There needs to be a free and fair discussion in the media about itself. The media is the watchdog of our society—but who is watching the media? Most whistle-blowers around the world leak information to the media because they feel they owe it to their country, their job or the position they are elected to.

Tell us something about those days, people’s reactions, your difficulties.

People in Sweden were shell-shocked. Bo G. Andersson of the Dagens Nyhetter (DN), Burje Remdahl and Jan Mosander of the Swedish Radio are investigative journalists of repute. They were exposing illegal sales of arms to eastern Europe, the Middle East, even Vietnam through Australia. There was total disbelief in Karlskoga. The Indian deal was the straw that broke the camel’s back because it showed that corruption had reached right to the top in Sweden and in India. They were very brazen about it. There was no evidence of any bribe being paid to Palme, but he and some of his ministers knew exactly what was going on.

A quarter century later, any reflections on why Rajiv Gandhi’s name came up?

There was no evidence that he had received any bribe. But he watched the massive cover-up in India and Sweden and did nothing. Many Indian institutions were tarred, innocent people were punished while the guilty got away. The evidence against Ottavio Quattrocchi was conclusive. Through a front company called AE Services, bribes paid by Bofors landed in Quattrocchi’s account, which he subsequently cleaned out because India said there was no evidence linking him to the Bofors deal. Nobody in Sweden or Switzerland was allowed to interrogate him.

Ardbo was terrified about this fact becoming public. He had hidden it even from his own marketing director who said marketing middlemen had a role, but not political payments. Ardbo was also concerned about the role of Arun Nehru who had told Bofors in 1985 that his name and Rajiv Gandhi’s name should not appear anywhere. As the stories began to appear, Ardbo knew what I knew. He had written in his notes that the identity of N (Nehru) becoming public was a minor concern, but at no cost could the identity of Q (Quattrocchi) be revealed because of his closeness to R (Rajiv Gandhi). He had also mentioned a meeting between an AE Services official and a Gandhi trustee lawyer in Geneva. This was a political payment. These payments are made when the deal has to be inked and all the numbers are on the table. I spent long hours interrogating Ardbo. He told me Nehru was the eminence grise, but not much more. He said often that he would take the truth with him to his grave. I met him a little while before he passed away.

Under pressure from Swedish and Indian media and with the threat of a cancellation of the contract hanging over them, Bofors sent its top executives to India with the one-point task of giving out the names. Nobody of any consequence received them.

What was your experience with Indian investigators?

The only team I met in early 1990 damaged the seriousness of my work and the media investigation. I met them on a courtesy call. They were in the process of filing a letter-rogatory (LR) in Switzerland. Without an official request from Switzerland, Sweden could not intervene. They gave me a list of names to pursue including the name of Amitabh Bachchan. They also told me they did not trust you entirely because you had refused to link the Bachchans to the kickbacks. During that trip to Sweden, the Indian investigators planted the Bachchan angle on DN. The Bachchans took them to court in the UK and won. DN had to apologise and they said the story had come from Indian investigators. I was disappointed with the role of many senior journalists and politicians during that period. They muddied the waters.

After the LR was lodged in Switzerland, I was waiting for the official track with India and Switzerland to begin. It never did. Whenever the public prosecutor Ekblom and I heard of any Indian visits to Stockholm, we would speak to the media expressing our desire to meet them. Can you imagine a situation where no one from India met the real investigators of the gun deal? That was when we saw the extent to which everyone was compromised. Many politicians who had come to my office claiming they would move heaven and earth to get at the truth if they came to power, fell silent when they held very important positions directly linked to the deal.

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