The World from Berlin: 'Police Are Responsible for the Lives of All Their Detainees'

A German court has reopened the case of an asylum seeker from Sierra Leone who died while in police custody in 2005. The man burned to death in his cell in the eastern city of Dessau after allegedly setting his mattress on fire -- despite being handcuffed to the bed at the time. German commentators welcomed the court's decision.

A tribute to the late Oury Jalloh outside the police station in Dessau where he died in 2005 Zoom
DDP

A tribute to the late Oury Jalloh outside the police station in Dessau where he died in 2005

Germany's Federal Court of Justice has reopened the case of an asylum seeker who died under mysterious circumstances while in police custody in Dessau, a city in the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt, in 2005.

The Karlsruhe-based court on Thursday overturned a 2008 verdict by a Dessau court that acquitted a police officer who had allegedly failed to help Oury Jalloh when a fire broke out in his cell on Jan. 7, 2005. The judges argued there were too many gaps and inconsistencies in the case. The regional court in the state capital Magdeburg must now reopen the case and completely reconstruct the events surrounding Jalloh's death.

The Dessau court had ruled that the 23-year-old asylum seeker, who was from Sierra Leone, had committed suicide in his cell by setting his foam mattress on fire with a cigarette lighter. But observers pointed out that many of the details of the case seemed to make little sense. They asked how Jalloh had managed to set fire to a supposedly fire-resistant mattress cover while his hands and feet were handcuffed to the bed, and why someone in police custody had a cigarette lighter in his possession in the first place.

Jalloh had been put in the cell in the basement of the police station after being arrested for allegedly harassing two women. Police had handcuffed Jalloh, who had been severely intoxicated at the time of the arrest, to the bed after he allegedly resisted the officers. His death caused widespread outrage in Germany and internationally at the time.

The Karlsruhe judges questioned why the police officer in charge had not reacted more quickly when the smoke alarm went off. The officer had initially turned off the alarm instead of going to check on the prisoner. The Dessau court had ruled that the officer had not committed dereliction of duty because false alarms were apparently a common occurrence in the police station. The fact that a female police officer who had originally testified against her colleagues during the Dessau trial later retracted her testimony also raised suspicions that she had come under pressure from other officers not to speak out.

The Dessau judges also assumed that Jalloh's life could not have been saved even if the police officer had reacted immediately, given the speed with which the fire broke out. One of the open questions that will now be addressed is whether Jalloh could have been rescued if police had reacted more quickly. The Karlsruhe judges suggested that Jalloh might have cried out when the fire started, which would have alerted the police of the emergency earlier.

Friends of Jalloh and human rights activists staged a demonstration in Dessau Thursday, which was the fifth anniversary of the asylum seeker's death. Activists have long campaigned for the circumstances of the death to be investigated, with some believing that Jalloh was murdered by racist police. Human rights groups Thursday welcomed the court's decision, as did a lawyer representing Jalloh's family.

German commentators Friday supported the decision to reopen the case and called for more measures to prevent police abuses.

SPIEGEL ONLINE writes:

"In this case, the Federal Court of Justice was charged less with clarifying legal points and much more with considering the logic (of the argumentation in the original trial). The judges very carefully reviewed the assumptions of the Dessau district court, the assumptions which had led to the acquittal of the police officer, and repeatedly encountered gaps and things that were hard to believe."

"Friends of the late asylum seeker believe that Jalloh was set on fire by racist police. The federal court rightly believes that to be unlikely. It is more probable that Jalloh, who was very drunk, lit the fire in his cell in order to draw attention to himself, and then events got out of his control."

"Although the federal court was very thorough in the way it uncovered the gaps in the existing evidence, it was equally careful to skirt around the delicate issue of racism. But that could be the key to understanding the casual manner with which the police officer initially ignored the smoke alarm in the cell. Did the life of an African detainee perhaps not seem to him to be a priority?"

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"A man died in police custody. The police are responsible, without any exceptions, for the lives of their detainees -- whether it is a drunk local politician or a stoned asylum seeker. They have a duty to ensure the safety of the person in custody. This obligation is all the greater when they have put the man in handcuffs. The policeman in Dessau ignored this obligation to act -- a fact that is still true even if the detainee had set fire to the mattress in his cell by himself."

"The thoroughness (with which the justice system will now try to clear up Jalloh's death) is a signal to society. … Now no one will be able to say any longer that the judiciary swept a scandal under the carpet. On the contrary, they have removed the carpet and are trying to understand how such callousness can happen. Five years after the crime, it will not be any easier (to find out what happened). But the new attempt to clear up the case deserves respect."

The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:

"Finally, a piece of good news in a case that could previously only be described as a scandal. … Unwillingness to cooperate, sloppiness and inconsistencies characterized the police investigation from the outset. During the Dessau trial, the chief witness, a policewoman who had initially testified against her colleagues, later retracted her statement … prompting the suspicion that pressure had been put on her to change her testimony. The Dessau court judge himself declared the trial to have failed."

"Five years on, it will not be any easier to answer the open questions in the case … But irrespective of whether the new trial leads to new information and a conviction, the federal court's ruling sends an important signal. It shows that the judiciary is not simply prepared to let police officers get off scot-free."

"This is particularly important as action is seldom taken in cases of police violence against immigrants. … The investigating officers tend to give their colleagues, rather than the immigrants, the benefit of the doubt. … In other European countries like Britain and Norway, such cases are investigated by independent commissions. Such a commission would perhaps have brought more truth to light in the Jalloh case. As it is, five years after the tragedy, the terrible suspicion remains that the police were -- at the very least -- negligent with Jalloh's safety because he was a refugee from Africa."

The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:

"Right from the start, friends and relatives of Oury Jalloh and a number of human rights organizations suspected the Dessau police of being motivated by racism in their actions. Although this has not been proven by any means, it is too self-evident to be ignored. Firstly, people of color living in the state of Saxony-Anhalt are in more danger than anywhere else in Germany; racial abuse and racist attacks are not the exception here but part of everyday life. Secondly, the police have avoided doing anything that could have given the impression that they have any particular interest in clearing up such crimes."

-- David Gordon Smith

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