1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

'There should have been a murder inquiry'

November 16, 2017

A man who apparently burned to death in a German police cell in 2005 could not have lit the fire himself, according to new documents. A prosecutor who had defended police now says there should be a murder investigation.

Oury Jalloh
Image: Imago/S. Schellhorn

Oury Jalloh, who died in police custody in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt in 2005, could not have set himself on fire, according to new documents revealed by the German public broadcaster WDR on Wednesday.

Experts on fire safety, medicine and chemistry all came to the conclusion that Jalloh's death was more likely caused by someone else— contradicting the police's claims that the 36-year-old killed himself, the investigative TV show Monitor reported.

Police in Dessau said they arrested Jalloh, who was from Sierra Leone, on January 6, 2005, after they received a report that he had harassed two women. They suspected him of being under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Police said they searched him and put him in a cell overnight after subduing him and shackling his hands and feet to the bed because he became "aggressive."

According to the police, Jalloh freed his hands, found a lighter they had missed when searching him, tore a hole in the fireproof cover of the mattress he was lying on, and set it ablaze. The lighter in question was produced three days after the initial search of the cell — officers said they had only discovered it, hidden under Jalloh's body, during a second search. Forensic scientists found none of Jalloh's DNA or clothing on the heavily damaged lighter.

A mannequin stands in for Oury Jalloh in the failed re-enactment
Prosecutors were unable to re-enact Jalloh's death according to the official accountImage: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Burgi

12-year campaign

The irregularities in the official account have led to 12 years of campaigning by the Break the Silence initiative, which has financed investigations and successfully pressured prosecutors to keep the case open.

Perhaps most significantly, Folker Bittmann, a state prosecutor who for many years defended the police's account of Jalloh's death, changed his mind in April, when he argued that a murder investigation should be opened.

According to one of the documents made public by WDR, Bittmann now believes that Jalloh was incapacitated or dead before the fire was lit and that the mattress had been sprayed with a flammable liquid — possibly gasoline. He also suggested that the fire had been lit to hide evidence of another crime against the prisoner.

Federal prosecutors declined to open a new investigation and referred the case back to state prosecutors in Halle, who declared the case closed on October 12 on the grounds that there was "not sufficient real evidence for the participation of a third party in the fire."

"In the face of the new insights, the threatened closure of the investigation is a scandal," Gabriele Heinecke, the lawyer representing the Jalloh family, told Monitor.

Candeles as the shrine dedicated to Oury Jalloh
Prosecutors believe police may have lit the fire to hide evidence of another crimeImage: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Endig

Political blockade

Break the Silence campaigner Nadine Saeed said the initiative's pressure had forced the Dessau prosecutors to reopen the case in 2013, which — after a slow three-year investigation — led prosecutors to conduct their own fire test in August 2016. Campaigners criticized the test because of various inaccuracies in the reconstruction of Jalloh's cell.

Even so, the test result also concluded that Jalloh could not have set fire to the mattress himself — and that the mattress could not have burned up completely, as it did in 2005, without the aid of some kind of flammable liquid.

Part of the reason why the new revelations have only come out now is that Heinecke was not granted access to the documents until last week. "There should have been a murder inquiry, but instead the investigation was closed — and only now have the lawyers been granted access to the files," Saeed said. "The lawyers couldn't react before because there were no documents. It shows how the case was withdrawn from Dessau so that the murder investigation wouldn't have to be continued."

Saeed said it was "not normal" that it took so long for the documents to be opened, but added that it is significant that the state prosecutors in Dessau were taken off the case after changing their minds.

The case is also beginning to draw political consequences, with the Left party in Saxony-Anhalt calling for a special inquiry and accusing the state government — made up of the Christian Democrats, Social Democrats, and Greens — of a "political blockade."

Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight