Death in custody – David Zuther, Germany

On a January day in 2005, the immigrant Oury Jalloh was arrested and brought to a police station. A few hours later, he was dead. A decade later, the circumstances of his death remain a mystery.


A mural in Hamburg alleges Oury Jalloh was murdered and demands an investigation.

January 7, 2005, around 8 A.M: The police station in the town of Dessau receives a call from an employee of the city cleaning who complains about a man molesting her and one of her colleagues. The police station sends a patrol car to investigate the incident. At this time, everything looks like a routine police job, but in a few hours, it will get out of control.

The police officers approach a black man:  Oury Jalloh, a 37-year-old asylum seeker from Sierra Leone. They yell: “Passport, amigo”. Jalloh heavily resists arrest – he is drunk, after spending the night alone in a discotheque. The officers arrest him.

“Bring your special needle”

It is maybe half past eight in the morning when Oury Jalloh enters the police station in Wolfgang street 25 – against his will. He will not leave that station alive.

The officers call a doctor – the officer on duty, Andreas S., chats with the physician in a tone that has little to do with professionalism: “Are you going to sting a black African?”

” Oh shit I never find their venes” The doctor answered.

Andreas S. laughs and tells the physician to bring his “special needle”.

The blood test reveals a severe alcohol intoxication: 2,93 per ml. Nevertheless, the doctor declares Jalloh fit for custody. The policemen bring him to cell number five, a room especially constructed for aggressive people. The doctor had warned the policemen that Jalloh might try to harm himself. The cell is tiled. There is nothing but a mattress on the floor and chains on the wall. Jalloh is placed on the mattress, his handcuffs are chained to the wall and his feet are shackled as well. Jalloh has four more hours to live.

Suicide or murder?

On the first floor, Jalloh’s cell is connected to an intercom system. From time to time, officers go downstairs to look at Jalloh. The last time someone looks after him is 11.45 a.m. Some fifteen minutes before his death. Until that time, the events are well-documented. However, the last minutes in the life of Oury Jalloh is a mystery, even a decade afterwards.

It would be naive to expect to be provided a definite answer to the question of what happened on that winter day in cell number 5. The only people who know the missing puzzle pieces are the men and women who were on duty that day, but they have shown no interest in shining light on the tragic events that led to the death of Oury Jalloh.

Fire at noon

It was about noon when a fire broke out in Jalloh’s cell. He probably tried to make the officers aware of this using the intercom, screaming or rattling his shackles. But Andreas S., the officer on duty, turned down the volume of the intercom sound because he was on the phone. His colleague Beate H. turned it up. They hear something that sounds like splashing. The fire alarm rings – twice. Andreas S. ignores it.  In court, he argues that false alarms were frequent. When a second alarm system also issues a warning, S. changes his mind. He goes downstairs with a colleague to find Jalloh’s cell filled with flames and smoke. It is ten past twelve. Jalloh is already dead. He could have been saved. Normally, it only takes a minute to walk from the room in which officer Andreas S. was, to the cells. Maybe Jalloh would still live if the officer had not ignored the alarm. Andreas S. leaves the cell again, supposedly to get the keys for Jalloh’s chains. It is too late.

The policemen call the fire department, but instead of mentioning that a shackled man is in the burning cell, they only report “one missing person”. There is a room directly opposite to cell number five. In this room, there is a hose with a steady water supply. One of the police officers had worked as a fireman before. Still, nobody attempts to extinguish the fire. They wait another twenty minutes until the firemen arrive.

The fire is extinguished, Jalloh’s body discovered. At quarter to two, the crime scene investigation team from a neighboring district is called in. At 3:30 pm, they enter the police station. On the afternoon of the 7th January, officers from the police office of the nearby city of Stendal begin questioning their colleagues.

The ‘Blue Code of Silence’

Three days after the fire, a fire lighter is discovered in one of the bags filled with the things collected in the cell. The prosecution concludes that Jalloh had that fire lighter in his jeans, and took it out with one hand, then setting fire to the mattress.

In May 2005, two officers are put on trial relating to the death of Oury Jalloh: Andreas S. is charged with bodily harm with fatal consequences for ignoring the fire alarm, and a second officer is charged with negligent homicide for not seeing the fire lighter while strip-searching Jalloh. It takes until March 2007 for the actual trial to begin. Twenty months later, both officers are acquitted. The presiding judge was boiling with rage: he accused some of the officers of making “unconsidered and extremely stupid” false statements. The acquittal, he stated, was due to “formal reasons”, not because he believed in the officers’ innocence. The trial had “nothing to do with the rule of law”, the jurist, clearly appalled by the ‘blue wall of silence’, the unwritten law among police officers not to report a colleague’s misconduct.  

In January 2010, after the prosecutors had appealed against the acquittal of Andreas S., a federal court ruled that the case needed a re-trial, which began a year later. In January 2011, six years after the death of Oury Jalloh, officer Andreas S. breaks his silence for the silence: he claims to be sorry for the death, and rejects allegations that he is racist. In December 2012, he was sentenced to a 10,800 Euro fine. Prosecution and defense both appealed. In September of last year, the federal court confirmed the sentence. The German justice system has closed the Oury Jalloh file.

Reasonable doubt

On the day of Jalloh’s funeral, a representative of the state government came to express his condolences. He was already leaving when he heard the sound of cracking wood: Jalloh’s friends were opening his coffin to have a last look at him. Seconds later screams of terror filled the Church: Jalloh’s friends had heard that he was burned beyond recognition, but still were unprepared to face the horrors he must have gone through, visible in the state of his remains.

As the state of shock slowly faded in the African community of Dessau, the friends of Oury Jalloh began raising questions.

They doubted that the official version of events could be true. They suspected the authorities were covering up that Oury Jalloh had been killed by policemen who went too far. For them, the idea that Jalloh is just one theory among others, not any more probable than their own assumption. Strikingly, although German courts spent hundreds of hours dealing with this case, they never discussed the possibility that Jalloh did not commit suicide. The judges just took for granted that the cause of death was suicide.

Over the last decade, the “Initiative in memory of Oury Jalloh”, founded by Jalloh’s friends and family as well as human rights activists, has uncovered puzzle pieces that just will not fit into the official narrative.

The mattress in Jalloh’s cell was flame-resistant, casting doubt on the idea that he set it to fire with a cheap plastic lighter (which, by the way, melted, but did not explode, contradicting schoolbook science). The lighter itself only turned up three days after the fire, and its forensic examination of it showed no traces of Jalloh’s DNA, his clothes or the mattress, but other fibres of unknown origin.

The official police video supposed to document the crime scene turns black in the very moment it is zoomed in on the cell and the mattress. The police videographer named a power cut as explanation for the glitch, yet several eyewitnesses could not recall that such a power cut ever occurred.

A register in which officers document their patrol routes and activities – an important piece of evidence that would have shown who was where, and when – vanished.

Beate H., a policewoman working at the station, reported that at half past eleven in the morning, thirty minutes before the fire broke out; two unknown men had visited Jalloh in his cell, and that Jalloh seemed to be agitated after the incident with the two strangers.

When Jalloh died, his nose was broken. The police autopsy, however, failed to mention this fact, it was only unearthed in a second, independent autopsy, paid for by the activists.

The unusually low concentration of carbon monoxide makes two scenarios likely: either Jalloh was dead before the fire broke out (which would mean the official cause of death is wrong) or he died so fast he could not inhale relevant amounts of the chemical (which would make the use of fire accelerants more probable). A number of eyewitnesses, including Beate H., reportedly saw a liquid on the floor of cell number five – they were all sure it could not have been urine. Additionally, in a 2013 report, an Irish arson investigator hired by the “Initiative” concludes – after recreating the fire in the cell – that the deep injuries on Jalloh’s body are only logic if fire accelerants had been used. And if fire accelerants were used, Oury Jalloh did not kill himself. While it is imaginable that Jalloh brought a fire lighter to his cell (although it does not seem logical, given the extensive body search that he was subjected to), there is no doubt that it would have been impossible for him to bring a can of chemicals to the cell.  

In light of recent events, Oury Jalloh and his case need to be reconsidered, having been forgotten in the collective memory of most Germans. In 2011, the existence of NSU (National Socialist Underground), a right-wing terrorist group, was revealed when two of its members committed suicide (while the third one is being tried at the moment), numerous failures by German authorities were uncovered: NSU could have been stopped, discovered, arrested, had the authorities not failed to react properly. For more than a decade, the group had traveled Germany, killing nine immigrants and a policewoman, bombing and robbing banks.

As Iyiola Schanke, a British law professor working on racial integration, said in the Guardian: “Taken together  the cover-up of the NSU scandal and the superficial investigation into the death of Oury Jalloh raise questions about the conduct of German police towards black and minority ethnic victims of crime. The parallels are worrying and it would be hasty to brush them aside as mere coincidence.”

Today, for most Germans, the name Oury Jalloh does not ring a bell. His death in police custody – a worrying and rare incident – has been forgotten, despite its mysterious and shocking circumstances. Confronting the authorities over inaccuracies in the official version of events, however, and keeping to urge a thorough re-investigation of the case, is crucial for a democratic, and transparent society. The truth may be ugly, and we may be faced with the dark heart of racism in Germany, but we cannot afford turning a blind eye on it. The little awareness about the Oury Jalloh is an example of a general lack of interest in issues such as police brutality and institutional racism (often considered to be non-existent in this country). It is a stain on Germany’s supposedly clean record.

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