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Germany: State minister apologizes for death of jailed Syrian man

Amed A., a Syrian asylum-seeker, died in a prison fire. North Rhine-Westphalia's interior minister said the man was falsely imprisoned and has asked his family for forgiveness. Several guards remain under investigation.

The interior minister of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) has publicly apologized to the family a 26-year-old Syrian man who died from burns he suffered while falsely incarcerated at the JVA Kleve state prison.

Herbert Reul, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), begged for forgiveness "from the bottom of my heart" on Friday while addressing the family of Amed A.

The statement was made during a special session of the state's Interior and Judicial Committees. Reul admitted that authorities had committed "grave procedural mistakes" at the time of the arrest and afterward. "We must do everything we can to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again," he told committee members.

Read more: German prison system buckling under threat of overcrowding

Case of mistaken identity

Amed A. was arrested on July 6, in nearby Geldern, on suspicion of sexual harassment. When police checked his papers they found an outstanding arrest warrant under the same name in Hamburg, hundreds of miles away. However, the man being sought in Hamburg was Amedy G. from Mali, wanted for an outstanding fine for theft; he had simply given police an alias, Amed A.

Though Reul said the young Syrian refugee had been on the police radar for a number of infractions, he had nevertheless been falsely jailed in a case of mistaken identity that could easily have been avoided if police had worked more carefully.

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After taking Amed A. into custody, police failed to check place of birth, fingerprints, distinguishing features such as hair or eye color or photographs, nor did they interview residents at the nearby refugee center where A. lived.

About a month after Amed A. was arrested, the public prosecutor's office in Hamburg called the JVA Kleve to ask whether the man  in their institution was actually the man on the warrant. The answer from Kleve: "We don't have any evidence that he is." Nevertheless, Amed A. remained in custody.

More than a month later, on the evening of September 17, a fire broke out in his jail cell, injuring him and 11 others. Amed A. suffered severe burns and was flown by helicopter to a hospital in nearby Duisburg. After lying in a coma for nearly two weeks, he died at a clinic in Bochum on September 29.

Disciplinary investigations, but no suspensions

The cause of the fire that killed Amed A. has not been uncovered, though authorities have said suicide may have been a motive. Others have said this is unlikely, as Amed A. was set to be released soon.

A number of guards are currently under disciplinary and criminal investigation, though none have been suspended. A prison psychologist is also under investigation. Amed A. told her he was innocent and insisted he had not even been in Germany at the time the crime committed by Amedy G. took place. The psychologist said she didn't believe him.

Read more: What it's like teaching women English in a German prison

Meanwhile, calls from the opposition Social Democratic Party for NRW Justice Minister Peter Biesenbach to step down have grown louder. Thus far, he has ignored the demand.

During Friday's special session, Biesenbach said security authorities had to "learn their lesson" from the case. He added: "We must critically ask ourselves what went wrong, because it is clear that something did go wrong."

Green Party state parliamentarian Stefan Engstfeld was clearer in his assessment: "What happened here was a police and judicial scandal."

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js/cmk (AP, dpa, KNA)

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