How Sweden could bring in tougher sentences for sex offenders

A new government inquiry suggests locking convicted rapists up for at least three years, one year more than Sweden's current two-year minimum.

How Sweden could bring in tougher sentences for sex offenders
An inquiry has found it necessary to strengthen the punishments for sexual violations. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

The proposal comes after Sweden’s Social Democrat-Green government in January 2020 appointed a commission to look into stricter laws and sentencing of sexual crimes. Led by court of appeal judge Göran Nilsson, the commission included experts from Lund University, the police and the National Board of Health and Welfare, and it presented its findings and final conclusions earlier this week.

It suggests a series of changes, including that sexual crimes that take place remotely, for example on the internet, should be expanded to include a broader definition of the crime. This would mean, for example, that convincing an underage person to commit sexual acts, film them and send to the perpetrator could be classified not only as sexual exploitation, as today, but as sexual assault or even rape.

Other changes include increasing the minimum rape (våldtäkt) sentence from two years’ imprisonment to three years, and increasing the minimum penalty for rape of a comparably less aggravated nature (våldtäkt som är mindre grov) to at least six months in jail.

The commission further suggests increasing the minimum sentence for sexual assault (sexuellt övergrepp) to six months’ imprisonment, and increasing the minimum sentence for rape of a child (våldtäkt mot barn) from two years in jail to three years in jail.

It also suggests increasing the sentence for buying sex from a fine to imprisonment, for up to a year.

Swedish Justice Minister Morgan Johansson said the government would next put forward a bill to parliament based on the commssion’s report. There is no clear timeframe for when this will happen, but if parliament gives the green light, the changes could come into force on January 1st, 2023.

It is not the first time Sweden aims to step up its rape laws. In 2020, Sweden saw a two-year rise of 75 percent in convictions, a result which rights campaigners hailed as a success for a law change in 2018 that changed the definition of rape to make all non-consensual sex illegal. 

Previously a factor such as threat, force, or the victim having been taken advantage of in a vulnerable situation (such as under the influence of drugs or alcohol) was necessary for a rape classification. Under the new law, both participants need to have actively signalled consent either verbally or otherwise. With this law, Sweden became the tenth country in western Europe to class non-consensual sex as rape.

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INTERVIEW: ‘Everybody in Sweden who buys cocaine should know the money is used to buy bullets’

The award-winning Swedish crime reporter and author Diamant Salihu features in this Saturday's Sweden in Focus podcast, where he talked about Sweden's shockingly high number of gang shootings, what's behind it, and what to do about it.

INTERVIEW: 'Everybody in Sweden who buys cocaine should know the money is used to buy bullets'

Salihu, who is currently the crime reporter for state broadcaster SVT, was scathing about Sweden’s failure to act to deal with the conditions, which it was clear long before the current explosion of gang violence, risked turning young men into criminals.

“We have very segregated areas, and we have a young generation that we’ve known for many years were at risk of becoming criminals. We have failed to stop that from happening, and now they’re armed and dangerous and we’re like, ‘what the heck should we do?'”

Salihu’s first book, Tills alla dör, or “Until everyone is dead”, covers the evolution of the conflict between the Shottaz and Dödspatrullen gangs, starting with the formation of the two gangs following a dispute between two childhood friends over the robbery of a currency exchange. 

But he believes the true origin of rising gang violence in the Stockholm suburb of Rinkeby, where the gangs are based, goes back at least a decade earlier to when the authorities started closing their local offices in the suburb.

“For decades, the people there have been seeing the official buildings closing. The county offices were closed in 2007, and there were hundreds of people who had been working there, and then in 2014 even the police office closed down,” he said. “So these people felt more and more closed off from the majority society.” 

In his book, he describes how the mainly Somali families of the members of the two gangs tried everything to the stop the conflict, sending some of the young men to relatives in Somalia, and even trying to pay off the families of some of those killed, falling back on the Somali tradition of “blood money”, when one side pays the other a sum to prevent an endless cycle of retribution. 

“They turn to these old traditions, that usually would work in Somalia. But these guys are not from Somalia. They are from Sweden, with Somali parents. So they created their own society, this extremely radicalised way of living that neither the parents, nor this society can really fully understand.” 

“So the parents that were already feeling that they couldn’t do anything, and they totally lost control after these young teenagers armed themselves and started killing each other.” 

The situation, he said, was made even worse by the police’s inability to find, arrest, prosecute and jail the people who carried out these shootings. 

“This gave these guys even more motives to continue killing each other for revenge. The bad efficiency of the police and the prosecutors and [the inability] to solve the cases has led to even more murders, and made these young teenagers even more radicalised,” he said. 

Salihu also explained how Swedish gangster rap fed off and then added further fuel to the dispute, with rappers posing with gang criminals in their videos, and describing their crimes in their music. 

“At the same time as the conflict was escalating, these teenage rappers were becoming more and more successful,” Salihu explained. “They grew up in this area and they were friends or relatives with some of these guys that were carrying guns, and so they also became a part of the problem.”

“They began to use these guys, the criminals, in their videos and in their lyrics, and this gave the rappers authenticity, and authenticity was what the audience was demanding because they wanted to see or listen to stories from this world that they were not part of.” 

But this involvement with gangsters came at a price, with several rappers being kidnapped by the gangsters and extorted out of some of the money they were earning from music. Einar, a white rapper whose mother was a successful actress, was then murdered. 

“Many of the rappers were hanging around with criminals that were armed, which gave them some kind of protection from those kinds of kidnappings or humiliations. But the one that didn’t have the same protection was Einar. He was an easy target with too much money. And that’s why they could do what they did.” 

Nowadays, the centre of gang violence in Stockholm has moved to the southern suburbs, away from Rinkeby in the north, which is relatively calm at the moment. 

“Especially the last two weeks, we’ve seen a huge gang conflict between two gangs, and one of the gangs has links to people that allegedly are the targets of what we thought was the Einar conflict,” Salihu said. “We don’t know that really yet.” 

Part of the reason last year was a record one for gang shootings in Sweden has been, paradoxically, a result of the police’s success in arresting and jailing many of the most senior criminals, largely because of the cracking of Encrochat, an encypted chat service. 

“When the leaders went to prison, the young guys became leaderless, but they still had guns and they still wanted to earn money on drugs,” Salihu explained. 

When the texts of the chats were made public as part of the court cases, they also showed which gang members were betraying their colleagues, something which is suspected of leading to revenge killings. 

“They also found out a lot of information through the encrypted chats, because in Sweden everything becomes official when you prosecute somebody,” Salihu said. “So they can see that this guy and that guy had some kind of relation with one another. There’s been a lot of gossip which has led to shootings.” 

The violence has also spilled out of Sweden’s big three cities into smaller cities like Sundsvall, Kalmar, and Linköping. 

“The police have the more vulnerable areas under watch and there is a huge market in the rest of the country, where the guys know that they can take over and sell their products,” Salihu explains. “And they kill their competitors if they have to.” 

A lot of the shootings in southern Stockholm have been attributed to a battle to control the drug market in Sundsvall, in the north of Sweden. 

“What we’re seeing now is a battle between two gangs, and one of the big markets that they want to take control over is in Sundsvall, since it is like a port to the rest of the northern parts of Sweden, and also to our neighbouring countries. There is so much drugs smuggled into Sweden that there are leftovers for Norway and for Finland.”

Just in the last decade or so, the volume of drugs being imported into Sweden has increased enormously, with police regularly busting cargos of kilograms of cocaine. 

When Salihu was writing his first book, he was hugely sceptical of a source who said he could sell 200g of cocaine in a weekend. 

“Then Encrochat came, and you could read that these guys are bringing in like 158 kilos of cocaine in some weeks. There’s so much drugs coming into Sweden.” 

Ten years ago, he said, police used to have a “kilo club” of officers who had made busts of over 1kg. 

“Now nobody speaks about that because it’s so common to get one kilo of drugs, which says something about what’s been happening in Sweden just during the last decade.” 

Drug use is more and more normalised in Sweden, he believes, with people using cocaine, cannabis and other drugs across social classes. 

“It’s everybody,” he said. “Everybody that buys a gramme of cocaine or cannabis should know that their money is being used to buy the bullets and guns that are killing people in Stockholm.” 

Salihu said that his next book, När ingen lyssnar, or “When no one is listening”, is about the cracking of Encrochat, an encrypted chat service, which allowed police in Sweden and elsewhere for several months to read in real time what some of the most powerful criminals were discussing. 

One of the things that has been shown by this hugely successful police operation, which involved police in France, the UK, and across Europe, was how many of the murders in Stockholm were ordered by gang leaders from afar. 

“The encrypted telephones have made it possible for criminals that have enough money to just order killings from abroad, while lying in the pool or sitting in a bar, and telling young teenagers to do things in the Swedish suburbs. That’s is what’s happening,” he said. 

“So the guys are in Turkey at the moment, because Turkey doesn’t extradite anybody to Sweden. I mean, I did a story quite recently there, where one of the wanted guys described Turkey as a ‘gangster’s paradise’. And one of the main characters in this ongoing battle about the Sundsvall market is the so-called Kurdish Fox. And he is based in Turkey and has invested in citizenship.” 

So what can Sweden do about its problem with gang crimes? 

Salihu has mixed feelings about the new government’s hardline approach, describing plans for stop-and-search zones as “political bullshit”, which the police have never expressed a need for, and expressing doubt about how much anonymous witnesses would be used in practice. 

But he does think that Sweden needs youth prisons.  

“There’s an agreement among researchers that we need to incapacitate young criminals, so that when they’re most active, they need to get off the streets, they need to be somewhere where they can get the proper treatment when they are young.”

Older criminals he has spoken to, he added, “think that it’s not the best thing to mix teenagers with adult criminals, because that might lead to even more recruitment.”

“Obviously,” he continued, “they need to be behind bars somewhere somewhere else, maybe for a longer time until they grow up and realise that they can’t kill each other like this.”