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Activists continue fight for justice in Oury Jalloh case

November 2, 2019

In 2005, the burnt body of Oury Jalloh was found in his German jail cell. Officials say that he set fire to the mattress, but new findings suggest that he sustained significant injuries before his death.

Oury Jalloh
Image: Imago/S. Schellhorn

"No justice! No peace!"

That's how Monday's press conference ended in Berlin, with the brother of dead asylum-seeker Oury Jalloh leading the chant. But for activists present, there was little to celebrate. A new medical report  in the case, commissioned by relatives of Jalloh, has been ruled inadmissible as evidence. On October 23, a German court threw out the new findings, which the activists had hoped would mark a turning point in their ongoing investigation into his death.

Oury Jalloh was an asylum-seeker from Sierra Leone found burnt to death in a police jail cell in 2005. The new medical report, commissioned by the activist group Initiative in Remembrance of Oury Jalloh (IGOJ), claimed to shine new light on the case. The report said that Jalloh's body may have sustained significant physical injuries before being burnt.

Activists, under their slogan "Es war Mord" ("It was murder"), claim that police were responsible for his death, but during 14 years of investigations have been unable to secure convictions for the men they believe guilty of police violence.

This latest report, described by Dr. Vanessa Thompson as the "best and only comprehensive scientific analysis" in the case, was supposed to change all that. 

But the regional court in Naumburg in the German state of Saxony-Anhalt ruled against accepting the report.

"Among other things, the applicant did not fully disclose the evidence which formed the basis of his suspicions," the court said in a statement. It is unclear whether under different circumstances the medical report would have been accepted as evidence.

Despite the setback, activists still believe Jalloh was murdered.

Read more: Ten years on, still seeking answers to Oury Jalloh's death

Saliou Diallo, brother of Oury Jalloh
Saliou Diallo, brother of Oury JallohImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Carstensen

What happened in 2005?

Jalloh left war-torn Sierra Leone in 2000 and made it to Germany via Guinea, where he applied for asylum; his application was rejected, but Jalloh stayed in the country. Jalloh was tried but not convicted on a count of drug trafficking in December 2004.

Then on January 7, 2005, Jalloh was taken into custody in the eastern city of Dessau after allegedly harassing two women while under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Hours later, the charred remains of Jalloh's body were found in the cell where he was being held. His wrists and ankles had been attached to the mattress on which he lay. Tests conducted at the time concluded that there were high amounts of alcohol and cocaine in his body.

Police said  Jalloh had taken his own life by igniting his mattress with a lighter. Questions arosef about why the fire was not discovered by police and why the fire alarm had been ignored or disengaged. It was also unclear where Jalloh had acquired the lighter and police were unable to immediately produce the lighter as evidence.

In 2012, the German Federal Court of Justice fined one of the police officers present €10,800 ($12,040) for involuntary manslaughter and said that negligence had contributed to Jalloh's death. In its decision, the court pointed to the original investigation, which noted that Jalloh had set fire the mattress himself.

Demonstration in Dessau in January 2019
Hundreds demonstrated in Dessau in January 2019, demanding justice for JallohImage: picture-alliance/dpa/H. Schmidt

New report: 'bones fractured'

That is the series of events that led to the fresh lawsuit, initiated at a regional level in Naumburg in November 2018.

"The prosecutors said he sustained the injuries after he died," Nadine Saeed, a spokeswoman for IGOJ, told DW. "That is simply wrong."

She, along with the members of IGOJ, believe that the new report shows that Jalloh suffered injuries at the hands of police officers. Doctors from a clinic at the Goethe University in Frankfurt examined radiological images of Jalloh's body and conducted a second autopsy.

It was already known that Jalloh's nasal bone was broken when his body burned, but the new medical report shows that he had a broken rib and fractures to his septum and the base of his skull.

Dr. Boris Bodelle, who led the autopsy, stated in the report that it is extremely unlikely that Jalloh could have inflicted these injuries on himself or that an accident, such as a fall, could have caused them. However, it is difficult to say whether these injuries were the cause of his death.

Human rights group: 'Police killed Oury Jalloh'

The European Network Against Racism, among other human rights organizations, said the new report indicates that "police killed Oury Jalloh."

Phillipp Krüger, a spokesman for Amnesty International Germany, pointed out that there have been many discrepancies in the case since the first investigation began.

"The investigation has proved inadequate from the outset," he told DW. "Judge Martin Steinhoff, who presided over the case in the first instance, was furious at the way the investigation was carried out and also the role that the police played. Privately funded fire assessments and autopsies had to be commissioned."

Krüger added that Amnesty had campaigned for legal changes to address cases like Jalloh's.

"We want police officers to have to be identified in cases like this, across all German states, so they cannot disappear into anonymity," he said. "Amnesty also demands video surveillance in the detention areas of German police stations."

The medical report is only the latest in a series of assessments paid for by the family of Jalloh and IGOJ. A 2013 report by an Irish fire and explosion expert indicates that a combustive agent may have been used to start the fire in which Jalloh's body burned.

Scene from the 2016 investigation into Oury Jalloh's death
A mock-up of the cell conditions in which Jalloh died investigated whether he could have set fire to his mattressImage: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Burgi

Activists 'will continue'

Saeed said the IGOJ will not give up its fight, and Jalloh's brother, Saliou Diallo, will use the fresh report to appeal to Germany's Federal Court of Justice later in November. If they throw out the evidence, it will pass to the European Court of Justice, according to Saeed.

"We will continue," she said, stressing that the family and initiative supporting Jalloh were undeterred by the latest setback in the 14-year-long case. It is unknown whether the federal or European court will accept the medical report as evidence.

"The injuries were very clear to see," Saeed said. But for those who believe Jalloh's case is an example of a police violence cover-up, the conclusion to the ongoing case may not be clear at all.

Living with the threat of deportation

Diana Hodali contributed to this report.

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Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH Elliot Douglas
Elliot Douglas Elliot Douglas is a video, audio and online journalist based in Berlin.