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First Preliminary Report of Rolf Gössner on Organized Irresponsability

Death Because of fire in the Police Department Put on Trial

Organized Irresponsability

First Preliminary Report of Rolf Gössner


In- and outside of the district court of Dessau high safety precautions are taken – intensified controls, police vans and police officers dressed in battle uniforms accompanied by dogs characterize the situation. With these means the proceedings against two police officers are protected who are accused by the state attorney and the co-plaintiffs of being responsible for the death caused by fire of the black asylum seeker Oury Jalloh. Not any other proceedings in Dessau have ever attracted such a degree of international public interest. At least at the beginning of the proceedings 27th March 2007 the city of Dessau was visited by many journalists and the district court had to deal with a rush of people. The proceedings are observed by Amnesty International and an international delegation of trial observers whose members come from South Africa, Great Britain and France. Three German civil rights group attend the proceedings too: the Internationale Liga für Menschenrechte (International League of Human Rights), Pro Asyl and the Komitee für Grundrechte und Demokratie (Committee for Basic Rights and Democracy). The observation of the proceedings is supposed to signal to the judiciary that there is a particular interest and it shall provide for a critical debate in the public – considering that the criminal proceedings have dragged on for two years now.

The two police officers are accused of grave assault with deadly consequences because of omission and manslaughter by neglect. Oury Jalloh who fled civil war and came from Sierra Leona was arrested in early 2005 in a state of drunkenness. The purpose was to clarify his identity. Because of the fact that Oury Jalloh resisted against this treatment the police officers cuffed his hands and feet. He was hardly able to move anymore and the police officers left him restrained and alone in the cell. The police officers conducted a control visit of the cuffed person only every thirty respectively forty minutes. Apparently this was too rarely and not carefully done since Oury Jalloh burnt to death alive on the the hardly inflammable mattress 7th January 2005.
The responsible police officers did not react in time in spite of unusual noises and cryings transmitted by the intercom and two different fire alarms ringing. Not before the cell has already been filled with heavy smoke and after the corpse of the painfully died has been nearly charred did one of the accused bring himself to take a look and call the fire fighters as the arraignment states.

During the first days of the proceedings a lot has been written and broadcast on the trial. The explosive nature of the case was underlined and remaining questions to be answered by the proceedings were mentioned. The latter include the question whether the death was a matter of suicide which could had been prevented if the police officers had reacted in time and according to duty. Another question is whether one has to deal with a case of omitted assistance, manslaughter by neglect or as some affirm, murder because of racist motives.

Already after four days during which a lot of witnesses have been heard one can draw important conclusions which are nevertheless preliminary since the proceedings will last until June. First of all it is a success that the trial does take place at all. Usually deaths in police departments and police violence do not lead to an opening of a trial.
The public pressure has very likely made the difference. Apart from that the co-plaintiffs, who among others represent the mother of the killed, have achieved an important success. Due to their engagement and against the original will of the judge and the lawyers of the defense the case of the person who died in 2002 in the same cell of the Dessau police department will be taken into consideration of the proceedings.
At that time a homeless person at the age of 36 died in custody under the same officer in charge accused right now for irresponsibility once again. The criminal investigation against him was closed but the the question concerning a possible conduct contrary to duty remained opened – an aspect relevant also to the current proceedings. In any case surprising parallels cannot be denied.

Viewed upon from today, it is obvious that already the circumstances of the identity control and the arrest are related to racism. One has to keep in mind that Oury Jalloh had a valid identity paper with him and only some months before he had already been taken into custody in order to clarify his identity, which at least one of the accused knew. Thus it should have been possible to quickly clarify his identity but instead he has been arrested in a cell for several hours. In this country refugees and in particular black people have to undergo these kind of repeated and discriminatory procedures on a everyday basis. In the court room where the audience was made up of many black Africans one could really feel that also their humiliating everyday experiences were treated as a topic. This was especially noticeable when police officers were examined as witnesses. They often pretended to be incapable to recall the events and entangled themselves in severe contradictions compared to their testimony already taken earlier during the criminal investigation.

It was inhumane and against the constitutionally guaranteed appropriateness of the means that Oury Jalloh was taken into arrest for a superfluous and long winded clarification of identity and that he was cuffed with hands and feet during several hours supposedly for his own security just because he resisted the arrest. This objection becomes even more true taking into consideration that with the degree of alcohol in his blood Oury Jalloh should have rather been transported to a doctor. As a matter of fact the custody order has been changed in that sens after the violent death of Oury Jalloh: People with an alcohol level of more than 200 milliliters have to be treated as a medical case instead of being taken into custody.

Just the compulsory measures exercised on Oury Jalloh require a higher degree of security to be guaranteed by the involved and responsible police officers vis-à-vis their victim. The police officers have not at all fulfilled this duty – rather to the contrary. The delayed reaction to all alarm signals stemming from the arrest cell, which makes up the reason for the arraignment of one of the police officers, might have also been motivated by racism – if one interprets the cynic way of talking about the detained during two telephone calls accordingly. These conversations between the accused and the doctor who attested Oury Jalloh to be “fit for custody” were recorded.

The same accused held responsibility for the whole custody area, the highly dangerous fixation of Oury Jalloh and the control rounds. The taking of testimony up to the moment makes up a partly terrifying picture of the conditions in the realm of the accused's responsibility.
Little by little one gets to know a security office in which “security” ranks superior to human dignity and civil rights, in which control rounds are only carelessly done (“he was doing alright”, stated a police witness about the restrained Jalloh), in which there hardly took place any schooling, let alone fire preventions, in which unusual noises and alarm signals by fire and smoke detectors do not lead to a sudden reaction but first of all to ignorance. “I was busy doing other things” - in this way the accused tried to defend himself on court again and again. In the end the security custody transformed into deadly trap with no escape.

In this regard one could speak of a failure of organization, even of an organized irresponsibility. One of the police officers examined as a witness even mentioned that because of the lack of minimal fire preventions the police headquarter should have been closed long ago. In this case Oury Jalloh would be still alive.