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Oury Jalloh, pictured with his friend Mouctar Bah
Mouctar Bah (r.) wants justice for his friend Jalloh (middle)Image: DW

Inconclusive evidence

January 8, 2010

Two officers acquitted in the death of a 23-year-old asylum seeker from Sierra Leone will now be retried. The man burned to death while handcuffed to a mattress in a jail cell in the German city of Dessau.


In the early hours of January 7, 2005, a Sierra Leonean man named Oury Jalloh burned to death while handcuffed to a mattress in a police cell in the eastern German city of Dessau.

Earlier that day, Jalloh, who had lived in Germany for three years and had recently been denied asylum, was stopped by the police after he reportedly harassed two women upon leaving a nightclub. Because he was unable to produce identification, the officers took the 23-year-old, who was under the influence of drugs and alcohol, into custody. He is reported to have resisted arrest.

The officers on duty placed Jalloh in a cell in the Rosslau district of Dessau and bound his hands and feet to the cell's mattress, which was made of flame-retardant material. As protocol dictated, they checked the cell several times, the last time at around 11:45 a.m. About 15 minutes later, the smoke detector in Jalloh's cell went off.

The police station in Dessau
Jalloh died in a fire at this Dessau police stationImage: DW

A difficult puzzle

What happened before and after this point can only be partially reconstructed with the statements of the officers involved and a court appointed investigator.

The police maintain that Jalloh, who was handcuffed at the time, set the mattress in his cell on fire using a lighter. A motive for him doing that has not been established. A court-appointed investigator said that a person whose hands and feet were shackled to a mattress could still have used a lighter. The investigator said that the flame-resistant mattress would have burned quickly if the protective layer was scratched or melted off.

Inconsistent testimony

The police may have overlooked a lighter in Jalloh's pocket during a body search. One officer testified to having turned off the loud speaker to Jalloh's cell during a phone call, and thus didn't hear any screams as he burned to death.

Two fire alarms sounded, one after another. According to the investigator, it took two and a half minutes until the shift supervisor made his way to the cell - without a fire extinguisher.

The officer who opened the cell door was hit with a cloud of thick black smoke. He didn't enter the cell.

Jalloh died shortly after 12 p.m. on January 7, 2005. The cause of death was determined to be heat shock. A second autopsy revealed a broken nose, though its cause was not established.

The trial of the two police officers started in March of 2007, two years after Jalloh's death, in a Dessau district court. The men were charged not with manslaughter by negligence, but with bodily harm resulting in death, a less serious offense. Police and expert witnesses testimonies were riddled with contradictions and sloppiness, and the hearing stretched over 60 days.

Acquittal met with outrage

In his verdict in late 2008, Judge Manfred Steinhoff said he could not prove the officers were guilty, but noted that the actual events could not be investigated because of contradictory statements.

As the acquittal was announced, the court erupted in angry protests.

A second chance at justice

On January 7, 2009, exactly five years after Jalloh died handcuffed in his cell, the federal court in Karlsruhe overturned the earlier verdict.

The court found that the police had not responded quickly enough to the signal of the fire alarm in Jalloh's cell, and therefore the police officers had not acted according to their duty. Furthermore, the circumstances surrounding how Jalloh managed to start the fire were found to be inconclusive.

The new trial will be held in Magdeburg.

Author: Petra Nicklis (smh)
Editor: Nancy Isenson

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