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Unanswered questions

Martin Koch / cmk
December 15, 2012

Almost eight years ago, asylum seeker Oury Jalloh died in a Dessau police station after his mattress caught fire. Officials are said to have ignored his cries for help. Now, a German court has handed down its verdict.


With red and white crosses on the steps of the District Court of Magdeburg and a poster with the words "Oury Jalloh - it was murder!", friends and relatives remembered the deceased asylum seeker from Sierra Leone at a candlelight vigil on Thursday (13.12.2012). His death still leaves many unanswered questions.

The mention of murder, however, was out of the question in the courtroom. The judges found the officer in charge of the Dessau police station guilty of involuntary manslaughter and fined him 10,800 euros ($14,100). The defense had argued for acquittal.

With the ruling, the court went beyond the request of the prosecutor, who had requested a fine of 6,800 euros. The judge found there was sufficient evidence that the accused should have been monitoring the intoxicated Jalloh, who was also under the influence of drugs, not only acoustically but also with cameras or duty officers, said court spokesman Christian Löffler in an interview with DW.

Inside the courtroom Foto: Ronny Hartmann/dapd
Pro Asyl called the verdict a "disaster"Image: dapd

"The defendant did not carry this out. The defendant also knew that in his duty room, he was relatively far from the detention cell no. 5. Accordingly, the defendant was not able to come to the victim's aid in time," said Löffler. In addition to the fine, the officer must cover the costs of the court proceedings, which will turn out to be higher than the fine.

Attorneys for the co-plaintiffs had asked for a conviction on bodily harm with fatal consequences, and false imprisonment.

German refugee rights group Pro Asyl criticized the verdict, calling it a "disaster." During the proceedings it came to light that the theory that Jalloh himself had set his mattress cover alight was not sustainable, said the group.

Fanny-Michaela Reisin, the president of the International League for Human Rights, was also critical of the verdict, saying the court and prosecutor had only shown a half-hearted interest in the case. Rather, they had been focused on the theory that Jalloh had been to blame. But during the trial many new pieces of evidence were introduced that countered that claim; evidence that the court was not ready to accept, claimed Reisin.

Conflicting views

Cell number 5 Foto: Peter Endig/dpa
The events of January 7, 2005 remain a mysteryImage: picture alliance/dpa

Even today, it is still not clear exactly what happened on January 7, 2005 in the Dessau police cell. There's no dispute that police took the 37-year-old Jalloh into custody for allegedly molesting two women under the influence of drugs and alcohol. When he refused to give his personal information and repeatedly banged his head against the wall, he was - according to the police - shackled to a mattress on the floor of a cell.

But just exactly how the fire started that would claim Jalloh's life remains a mystery. The official account says Jalloh used a cigarette lighter to ignite his mattress cover, dying in the fire that ensued. The duty officer had turned down the room's surveillance system while he was taking a telephone call, and allegedly twice ignored the smoke detector, dismissing it as false alarm. By that point, it was no longer possible to save Jalloh's life.

But Jalloh's family members, who acted as co-plaintiffs, pointed to a list of inconsistencies. One, for example, was that the supposed lighter with which Jalloh allegedly set the mattress on fire was missing from the evidence list immediately after the incident, only to reappear a day later. In addition, there was no DNA evidence from Jalloh, or traces of clothing fibers. The plaintiffs also claimed the quantity and condition of the clothing remnants, as well as the nature and severity of the burns, did not match the official account.

Little is also known about Jalloh's life. He came to Germany from Sierra Leone four years before his death. His application for asylum was rejected, but he was initially allowed to remain in Dessau. He had a baby with a German woman; the child was given up for adoption. A few weeks before his death, Jalloh had been convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison.

A angry protester in court Foto: Ronny Hartmann/dapd
Supporters of Jalloh disagreed with the verdictImage: dapd

Second trial

Thursday's verdict was the end of the second trial concerning Jalloh's death. In December 2008, a shift leader and another officer were acquitted of assault causing bodily harm with fatal consequences. Prosecutors and co-plaintiffs, including Jalloh's mother, were shocked. Given the numerous contradictions between the statements of the police and the evidence, they had hoped for another verdict. The presiding judge qualified his ruling, saying it was based on a technicality since substantial evidence of wrongdoing could not be found.

Both the prosecution and co-plaintiffs appealed the judgment. The Federal Court of Justice reversed the acquittal of the shift leader in January 2010, and acknowledged that the Dessau police had been unwilling to clear up the situation.

The defense and the co-plaintiffs will be able to appeal the latest verdict within the next week. Should that happen, the case would again go before the Federal Court.

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