Two German police officers are being charged with the death of a refugee from Sierra Leone, who was found burnt to death in his prison cell. The officers claim the man committed suicide. The trial opened on Tuesday.
Security is tight at the trial
Oury Jalloh, a refugee from Sierra Leone, was found burnt to death in his prison cell in the eastern German city of Dessau over two years ago. From Tuesday, two policemen face charges over his death at the city's district court.
One officer is charged with manslaughter for overseeing a lighter during Jalloh's body search. The 21-year-old Jalloh, who was tied to his cot with bound hands and feet, is assumed to have used it to light himself on fire on Jan. 7, 2005.
But the second, more senior supervising police officer faces a more serious charge. According to the district court's spokesman Frank Straube, the public prosecutor has accused him of bodily harm with fatal consequences.
"It is charging him with disregarding the alarm signals and thus causing the death of Oury Jalloh," Straube said.
The court will hear evidence that the 46-year-old senior officer apparently ignored calls for help. He apparently also mistook the sounds made by the fire for running water.
Dessau's senior prosecutor Folker Bittmann said the fire alarm and the communication system connected to the prison cell in which Jalloh died had been turned off.
"We are horrified to think of the incredible pain the man must have suffered during the fire," Bittmann said. "This should never have happened."
The trial is expected to last six days, with a verdict expected sometime in April.
"I am scared, deep down"
There are many rumors about what exactly happened that day -- ranging from suicide theories, through to simply bad luck and murder conspiracies. Moktar Bahr from Guinea was a close friend of Jalloh. He said he is skeptical.
Jalloh's friends and family doubt he lit himself on fire
"Oury, of all people, wasn't exactly the type who would just go and burn himself," Bahr said. "I am scared, deep down."
Many foreigners in Dessau are feeling uneasy. Razak Minhel, who is from Iraq and works in the local multicultural center, said many question why it has taken so long for the case to go to trial.
"It has taken too long to bring this case to trial," Minhel said. "That has given everyone plenty of time to develop their own theories as to what happened. I think that has caused not just damage to the reputation of the police, but damaged us as well."
Police can train their grasp of human rights
According to the German Institute for Human Rights in Berlin, some police do disregard the protection needs of citizens. But this can be counteracted. The institute began offering voluntary seminars for police officers in 2003 on human rights.
"We noticed (in the seminars) that both the knowledge about human rights, as well as the awareness about values such as dignity, freedom and equality were not particularly highly developed," said Claudia Lohrenscheit, head of this division at the institute.
In a subsequent study, the institute found that cop culture within a police unit played a role in an officer's behavior.
"Certain practices prevail there," Lohrenscheit said. "There are certain values, which differ very much from official police culture you read about in police principles."
Jalloh's mother has come from Guinea for the trial
Lohrenscheit said hierarchies played a key role. The head of an individual unit was respected and trusted in the group, she said. If a culture, which orientated itself to human rights, developed within a unit, it was very likely that the entire force would comply with this, she said.
Police in Dessau on high alert
In Dessau, Jalloh's mother is appearing as a joint plaintiff in the case. She has traveled from Guinea to Dessau to attend the trial. Donors paid for her journey to Germany.
In addition, protestors, mostly foreigners, are expected take part in vigils.
The police are on high alert: rallies were already held this year on the second anniversary of Jalloh's death. In addition, late last year there were a number of arson attacks including an attack on the home of one of the police officers on trial.