Germany’s Ferguson Ten Years On: The Unsolved Case of Oury Jalloh

“Oury Jalloh! It was murder!” Every January since 2005, activists from all over Germany have journeyed to the former East, carrying placards and posters bearing the phrase. In the beginning their activities seemed like a mere spark of righteous anger that would eventually die down and vanish. But ten years later their efforts have turned Oury Jalloh into a fixture in the national consciousness, a chapter in Germany’s recent past that is hard to believe and even harder to forget.

36-year-old Oury Jalloh arrived in Germany from war-ravaged Sierra Leone. He was assigned to an asylum hostel near Dessau, an East German town with an already troubled history of racialized violence: in 2000, Dessau made headlines when three drunken neo-Nazi youth beat to death Alberto Adriano, a Mozambican man who had lived and worked in the town for more than twenty years. It was hardly a place that a young African man waiting for his asylum application to come through could expect to thrive. But Jalloh had no choice. Like many people with asylum applications pending, Jalloh’s daily existence was regulated by a policy known as Residenzpflicht (residence requirement). Peculiar to German asylum policy, these rules strictly limit the movements of asylum applicants to certain geographical areas, making it hard to seek work and earn a wage, go to school, or even visit other towns. Hopping on a train and going someplace more diverse – Berlin, for instance, a mere ninety minutes away – meant risking a fine or imprisonment, both of which could doom an asylum application to failure.

Early on January 7th, 2005, Jalloh was arrested in Dessau for allegedly harassing a group of female street sweepers out on their morning shift. After undergoing a pat-down search, Jalloh was shackled by his wrists and ankles to the floor of a cell in the basement of the police station, a tiled enclosure furnished with nothing other than a plain fireproof mattress. State prosecutors would later note that Jalloh was intoxicated and ‘agitated’ at the time of his arrest and that ‘great care had to be taken’ to prevent the prisoner from injuring himself.

Around noon, fire alarms sounded throughout the holding facility – alarms that police authorities effectively ignored until it was too late. Some thirty minutes later firefighters discovered Jalloh’s remains still shackled to the floor of his cell, charred beyond recognition.

The Landeskriminalamt (state office of criminal investigation) of Sachsen-Anhalt was the first to assert that Jalloh’s horrific death was self-inflicted. Supposedly Jalloh picked open a corner of the fireproof mattress on which he lay and set the stuffing inside alight with a cigarette lighter stashed in his pocket. But police authorities admitted to having searched Jalloh before locking him in his cell. Surely an item like a cigarette lighter would have been confiscated. And even if the lighter had been overlooked, how could a man bound to the floor by his hands and feet reach into his pocket, pull out a lighter and use it to set anything on fire – particularly a fireproof mattress?

Human rights activist Mouctar Bah was haunted by these questions. A soft-spoken man from Guinea, Bah ran a small internet café in Dessau that had become a popular gathering place for the African community. People dropped in to meet friends, eat a home-cooked meal, play draughts and make long-distance phone calls. It was here that Mouctar Bah had become acquainted with Oury Jalloh and first heard the news of his death. The possibility that someone could simply vanish under barely plausible circumstances had frightening implications for Bah and his clientele, many of whom, like Jalloh, were in the process of seeking asylum in Germany. What did it mean for people whose lives were already at the mercy of a largely nebulous state apparatus when such a grisly death could be so quickly and unconvincingly explained away?

Bah helped found the Initiative in Remembrance of Oury Jalloh, a grassroots organization which for ten years has fought for transparency in the investigation of Jalloh’s death. The Initiative led a series of demonstrations in Dessau to draw media attention to the case and raised money to finance an independent autopsy of Oury Jalloh’s remains. In 2007, the group arranged for Jalloh’s mother and brother to come to Germany and attend the trials of officers Andreas S. and Hans-Ulrich M., both of whom had been on duty at the time of Jalloh’s death. Hans-Ulrich M. was accused of having failed to notice a cigarette lighter on Jalloh’s person when he was brought into custody; Andreas S. was alleged to have shut off the fire alarm, not once, but twice. Both were charged with negligence resulting in death.

During the trial, state prosecutor Christian Preissner called Jalloh’s death a ‘tragic accident’: “There is no other scenario imaginable other than Oury Jalloh lit the fire himself,” Preissner told the court. In 2008, both officers were acquitted of any wrongdoing, a decision that the Initiative vehemently challenged. After two years of protests and petitioning, the German High Court in Karlsruhe overturned the original decision, and a new trial began in Magdeburg in 2011. This time the Initiative sought the input of a team of international legal experts, among them Birbeck College School of Law professor Eddie Bruce-Jones, to observe the proceedings. In December 2012, Andreas S. was found guilty of negligence and was ordered to pay a fine in the amount of 10,800 EU (12,800 USD). Still, the court held that Jalloh’s death was self-inflicted – a conclusion that the Initiative found impossible to accept.

In 2013, the Initiative enlisted the help of forensic fire expert Maksim Smirnou, based in Ireland, to re-construct as accurately as possible the circumstances of Jalloh’s death – a step that German state prosecutors, for obscure reasons, failed to take nine years prior. Attended by Bah and Bruce-Jones, Smirnou built a model cell complete with the same type of fireproof mattress used in the holding facility in Dessau and brought in a pig carcass to replicate the body mass of a human. His investigation confirmed that the extent of the burns on Jalloh’s body could only have been the result of a combustive accelerant such as petrol or lighter fluid; it was otherwise impossible to achieve an intense enough level of heat in such a short time. In addition, independent medical examinations of Jalloh’s remains revealed a strikingly low level of adrenalin at the time of death, suggesting that Jalloh was in fact unconscious when his body was set alight. Both discoveries wholly discredit the original theory put forth by police authorities and point squarely at foul play – a charge that the Initiative long suspected was not far-fetched.

“In the beginning I really had doubts that Oury had been murdered,” Bah recently told Süddeutsche Zeitung. “But when I saw the results of the forensics report, all at once I cried, laughed and shook. It was then clear that Oury could not have set himself alight. That was suddenly certain.”

Even as the case of Oury Jalloh is as good as closed in the eyes of the German justice system, Mouctar Bah and members of the Initiative have achieved a victory perhaps more profound than a legal solution. In the last ten years, Dessau has become Germany’s Ferguson. Like Amadou Diallo, Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown and Eric Garner, the name ‘Oury Jalloh’ is a stark reminder of the vicious double standards that protect state institutions from self-incrimination, even amid blatant evidence of racialized violence. Yet, had it not been for the commitment of the Initiative, who were ready to venture beyond Germany in search of answers, the injustice perpetrated in Dessau would have gone no further than the tiny cell in which Jalloh died.

“If the activists had not gotten involved, right from the beginning, Oury Jalloh’s death would have been swallowed up and forgotten,” says Bruce-Jones. “There would have been no second autopsy, no ripping open the casket to show the world his burned body, no flying of the family to Germany to take part in the two trials, no pushing the legal teams to challenge the prosecution’s charges, no pushing for independent scientific evidence to dispute the self-immolation hypothesis. There would have been no case.
They still do this work, so that Jalloh’s death will not have been in vain and so that no one who dies in police custody in Germany will have to die in obscurity.”