"Break the Silence" campaigners rally in Dessau in January 2013 to commemorate the death of Oury Jalloh, who died in police custody in the eastern German town of Dessau on 7 January 2005. Campaigners believe that Oury Jalloh was murdered in police custody. Until today, the truth of what happened to Oury Jalloh is yet to be fully officially unearthed / Photo: Oury Jalloh Initiative

German officials re-open investigations into Oury Jalloh’s death

Investigators in Germany have reenacted the death of Oury Jalloh, a Sierra Leonean who police claim set himself alight in a cell while his hands were shackled. Campaigners are convinced he was murdered.

After eleven years of campaigning, fund-raising, and at least three independent fire tests, state prosecutors in Dessau, eastern Germany have re-staged the death of Oury Jalloh, a Sierra Leonean asylum seeker who died in a police cell on 7 January 2005.

The fire that the police claim led to Jalloh’s death was re-enacted on 18 August at a specialist research institute in Dippoldiswalde, Saxony, after being commissioned by state prosecutors, who added it would take “weeks” for results to be released. “We’re starting from zero and deliberately leaving previous results to one side,” spokesman Olaf Braun told the DPA news agency.

By “previous results,” Braun was referring to independent tests carried out by an Irish investigator, commissioned by Jalloh’s friends who had begun an initiative to investigate the death, and which prompted state prosecutors to re-open the case in 2014. These independent tests concluded that the degree of damage to Jalloh’s body and the mattress he was lying on could not have been caused without the aid of two to five liters of combustible fluid.

The late Oury Jalloh, here with his new-born child in an undated photo, has become a rallying figure for the Black Lives Matter movement in Germany / © Private
The late Oury Jalloh, here with his new-born child in an undated photo, has become a rallying figure for the Black Lives Matter movement in Germany / © Private
The “Break the Silence” campaign set up in remembrance for Oury Jalloh was less than happy with last Thursday’s re-staging. They said they found a number of discrepancies between the original conditions of the fire and the test reconstruction. “The cell reconstruction did not really match the real cell,” said Thomas Ndindah, a member of the initiative. “The reconstructed cell was only tiled to a height of around one meter – the original cell was fully tiled. The mattress that was used was too small, it wasn’t against the wall, and the dummy that was used was out of a cement material wrapped in aluminum, which can’t be used as an equivalent for organic materials.”

Though official test results will not be published for several weeks, Ndindah said that the mattress had only burnt at one end, and not been completely destroyed as Jalloh’s mattress was. For its part, prosecutors released a statement claiming that the campaigners’ independent researchers had been invited to take part in the test, but their lawyers had not responded.

Further discrepancies
A grim video showing the campaigners’ commissioned tests, using a pig’s cadaver, was posted on the campaigned website in November 2013, and detailed a series of other problems with the police’s account of Jalloh’s death.

According to police, Jalloh, was arrested during the night of 6 January 2005, after resisting officers and harassing some women. Under the influence of alcohol, THC and cocaine, he showed aggressive behavior and had to be shackled by his hands and feet to the bed in the cell. Nevertheless, police said that by midday the next day, he had managed to remove a cigarette lighter from his pocket (which had escaped the mandatory search), tear a whole in the mattress’s fireproof cover, and set fire to it.

The lighter in question was only produced three days after the initial search of the cell – officers said they had only discovered it during a second search, hidden under Jalloh’s body. Forensic scientists found none of Jalloh’s DNA or clothing on the heavily damaged lighter.
For Ndindah, the Dessau prosecutors are colluding with the police to cover mistakes. “The state prosecutors are part of a judicial system that has, after eleven years, still not managed to clear up a situation where a shackled man in a locked cell on a fireproof mattress was burned,” he told DW.

Prosecutors have consistently ruled out the possibility that anyone else was involved in Jalloh’s death. After an initial trial in 2007 and 2008, two police officers were acquitted of charges of involuntary manslaughter and bodily assault leading to death, though the judge did criticize the police for inconsistencies and incompetence.

That verdict was overturned on appeal by Germany’s Federal Court of Justice in 2010, and then in 2012 the shift duty officer was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and fined 10,800 euros ($12,200). That verdict was upheld by the federal court in 2014.

Black Lives Matter in Germany too
The campaign, meanwhile, has consistently staged protests outside the state prosecutors’ office – including adopting the “Black Lives Matter” slogan used in the United States to protest against the deaths of Black people at the hands of the police.
Nevertheless, last Thursday’s experiment was just one stage in what will likely be a long investigation. “This is not about clearing up how the fire was started or who started it – at least not at this point,” institute director Thorsten Prein told reporters.

Meanwhile, Mouctar Bah, a friend of Jalloh’s and the founder of the initiative, remains convinced that his friend was murdered – and that his autopsy, which found little indication of smoke in his lungs – showed that he was already dead when the fire was started. “I think he was already dead,” Bah told DW. “I think they killed him and wanted to hide it. / Deutsche Welle

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