On 7 January 2005, Oury Jalloh was arrested by the police in Dessau, Saxony-Anhalt. Supposedly, Jalloh, who had fled Sierra Leone for Germany, had harassed a group of women.
Just a few hours later, Oury was burned to death while chained down in his cell. The first court case in relation to this incident began 15 years ago. But to this day, the justice system has still not fully resolved the most important question: was it murder?
Family and friends of Jalloh, forensic experts, civil society at large, and activist groups have been campaigning for more than 17 years to get the case reopened and to follow up all the evidence that suggests that Oury Jalloh was set on fire in his cell in Dessau.
The organization Initiative in Gedenken an Oury Jalloh wrote an article for the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation marking 15 years since the first court case opened on the matter.
Who was Oury Jalloh?
Oury Jalloh was born in 1968 in Kabala in the West African country of Sierra Leone. When war broke out for control of the “blood diamonds” in the region (in which international diamond and weapons dealers were responsible for brutal crimes), his family fled to neighbouring Guinea. From there, Oury continued on to Germany, where he arrived in the early 2000s, living as an asylum seeker in government accommodation in Roßlau, with the precarious visa status of a Duldung (a kind of exceptional leave to remain with highly restrictive conditions and limited rights).
Initiative in Gedenken an Oury Jalloh is an association of volunteers who have been trying for years to clarify the background of Oury Jalloh’s death and prove in court that he was set on fire by police officers while in custody. Together with the family of Oury Jalloh, the initiative filed charges of obstruction of justice against the Prosecutor General’s Office of Saxony-Anhalt in November 2021 and demands that the Federal Prosecutor’s Office reopen the investigation.
Translated by Gegensatz Translation Collective.
Oury was a fun-loving person with many friends. He had a son with his girlfriend in Dessau called Justin, who was born in 2002. However, Justin’s mother gave him up for adoption at birth. A few weeks later, she came to regret her decision, and broke off the adoption process before the legal cut-off period. She wanted to start a family with Oury. However, the Immigration Office and the Department of Youth and Family Services refused to rescind the adoption, something that caused Oury a great deal of grief.
Early in the morning of 7 January, Oury Jalloh went walking alone through the streets of Dessau. He wanted to make some phone calls. Because his phone was broken, he asked a group of women working for the city’s sanitation services for their phone. They felt they were being harassed and called the police.
Although Oury posed no danger at all, the police officers immediately responded with the use of force. They yanked him into the patrol car and took him to the lock-up in the cellar of the police station. They claimed that Oury was continually trying to bash his head against the wall and the table, which is why they had to restrain him in Cell 5, restraining him by his hands and feet “for his own protection”.
Just a few hours later, Oury’s body was found burned beyond recognition. His corpse lay chained to a tiled platform in a tiled cell. Even the fire-resistant mattress that had lain beneath him had been reduced to ashes. That very same day, police investigators came to the conclusion that Oury had lit the fire himself. Over the coming days and months, this theory was mentioned in all the inspection orders and locked in by the Dessau public prosecutor’s office in their reports and the ensuing court proceedings as the only possible cause of the fire.
In the media, Oury was defamed by the authorities, depicted as a drug dealer who was said to have harassed women on the street under the influence of alcohol and cocaine. The media continues to contribute to the criminalization of the victim in the public imagination to this day, and from the very beginning, this reporting served to erode solidarity among an already disinterested mainstream society. The murder victim was presented as the sole culprit, as an aggressive and violent drug dealer who ultimately supposedly set himself on fire.
Organizing a Second Autopsy
With the support of grass-roots migrant groups in Dessau, just a few weeks after the events, friends of Oury and activists from the Black community founded the Initiative in Gedenken an Oury Jalloh. From very early on, it was clear that protests in the streets would not be enough to bring the truth about Oury’s death to light.
The Initiative made contact with Oury’s family in Guinea, allowing them to hire lawyers to inspect the case files. This is how it first came out that Oury had been chained by his hands and feet as his body burned, which raised numerous other questions. But the most important of these was: how can somebody who is chained down by their hands and feet set themself on fire?
Multiple demands for enquiries into the question of whether Oury’s corpse exhibited any damaged bones were expressly rejected by the authorities, leaving the Initiative with no alternative but to have their own analyses carried out. In March 2005, they organized for a second autopsy to be carried out at the Institute for Forensic Medicine in Frankfurt am Main. Among other findings, this autopsy revealed that Oury’s nose had been broken. However, the director of the Institute, Prof. Dr. Bratzke, refused to rule on whether this fracture had taken place while Oury was still alive, or whether it had occurred post mortem.
Fourteen years would pass before we received an answer to this question, thanks to a new expert forensic radiology report. After we became aware that during the first autopsy at the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Halle, central pieces of evidence — such as the scans of Oury’s airways — had disappeared, and that photos in the file had been incorrectly labelled, we also began to question the findings of the second autopsy.
For this reason, in 2019 we organized to show the CT scans of Oury’s corpse to experts at the Institute for Radiology in Frankfurt. The findings were definitive: Not only did the scans reveal a broken nose, as had been documented by Prof. Dr. Bratzke, but also a skull fracture. This — along with the two visible rib fractures — had been caused by violent force applied before death.
These findings confirmed our suspicion: Oury had been severely maltreated by the police officers before they set him alight. At the same time, it confirmed our belief that Prof. Dr. Bratzke had omitted these central pieces of evidence suggesting that police had used force on Oury.
Organizing an Independent Fire Investigation Report
It was not just the public prosecutors responsible for the case who refused to investigate the causes of the fire and of Oury’s death. The courts in Saxony-Anhalt also limited their focus during the four long years of court proceedings to determining the culpability of the shift leader on duty at the time, who was accused of having switched off the fire alarm multiple times, preventing any possible attempts to save Oury’s life.
But we wanted to understand how the severity of the fire in Cell 5 came about. After the court in Magdeburg likewise showed that it was unwilling to get to the bottom of the origins of the fire, we decided to organize so-called combustion experiments ourselves. Since we could not find forensic fire investigators in Germany who wanted anything to do with this case, we hired an expert from Ireland. We presented the findings in 2013 at a large press conference in Berlin, revealing the following: It was impossible to recreate the fire without the use of a powerful fire accelerant. Setting fire to the mattress without the use of an accelerant only causes a smouldering fire, which would have led to a fire with comparatively minor damage to mattress and body.
Despite these new, science-based findings, the public prosecutor’s office in Dessau continued to drag their feet when it came to the investigations. For this reason, in 2014, we hired another international expert to review the documents we had at our disposal. The outcome once again backed up the criticisms we had been making for years:
The official investigations in the case of Oury Jalloh do not meet international standards. They were carried out in a one-sided fashion with a view to proving the hypothesis of self-inflammation and, particularly when it comes to the investigation of the fire, heavily limited and incorrectly carried out.
Although our expert reports did not receive the attention they deserved from the public prosecutor’s office, this factual provision of evidence sparked a significant response in the media. Our research findings combined with public pressure led many people to the realization that in the case of Oury Jalloh, government bodies have been involved in an attempt to brazenly cover up a murder.
This loss of faith in the rule of law in Germany has in turn sparked growing support for our work, with the financial support in particular being central to our ability to work independently to uncover the truth about this case. Without these private donations, we would have been unable to continue our work.
Despite All Evidence to the Contrary, the Investigation Was Discontinued
In response to overwhelming public pressure, the public prosecutor’s office in Dessau felt the need to engage in high-profile counter-measures. In August 2016, it staged another combustion experiment seeking to prove their theory: the public prosecutor’s office wanted to demonstrate that such an intense fire could be caused in Cell 5 without accelerant. When the experiment failed, the experts from the public prosecutor’s office conceded that accelerant had been used to set Oury on fire.
That was the moment in April 2017 when the head public prosecutor in Dessau finally launched a murder investigation in relation to two police officers from the station, whom he named in the filings. Unfortunately, however, this step would prove to be little more than a sleight of hand on the part of the judiciary. The responsibility of these specific officers for lighting the fire in Cell 5 could be (definitively) ruled out since they were not involved in physically assaulting Oury, and thus had no motive to start the fire in order to cover up his injuries.
In light of this determination, the Naumburg chief public prosecutor’s office decided to call off the investigation. However, they went a step further and argued that there was supposedly no evidence to suggest the involvement of other people in Oury Jalloh’s death, flying in the face of all the scientific evidence.
With this outrageous and wilfully false assertion, the authorities in Saxony-Anhalt filed away the case of Oury Jalloh’s death in 2019. The constitutional appeal against the decision to discontinue the investigation has now been sitting with the German Federal Constitutional Court for more than two years, with a finding to be expected this year.
New Fire Investigation Report in 2021
Most recently, with the International Independent Commission on the Death of Oury Jalloh in attendance, we presented a new fire investigation report at a press conference in Berlin that received a great deal of attention. This resulted from a collaboration between the politically engaged film-maker Mario Pfeiffer, our British fire investigation expert Iain Peck, and a number of us activists who have become experts ourselves over the years.
For the first time, we had the opportunity to create a true-to-life recreation of Cell 5, as well as carrying out authentic movement experiments and illustrating the presumed course of the fire. Through this work, almost 18 years after the fact, we were able to produce a professional reconstruction of the crime scene. The results emphatically confirmed that Oury must have been doused in an accelerant and lit on fire.
Since then, the expert report from the federal public prosecutor’s office has been released. In November 2021, the family’s lawyer had demanded that the investigation be reopened, arguing that the case fell within the jurisdiction of the chief federal prosecutor:
There is reason to suspect the involvement of police officers in the killing of a person who was being held in custody and their collusion in subsequent efforts to pervert the investigations into the matter. The law enforcement authorities that have dealt with the case to date have not adequately fulfilled their duty of investigating the matter. Since the beginning of the investigations, the findings of — namely that Oury Jalloh had set himself on fire — had been determined in advance, despite the fact that it is extremely difficult to reconcile these findings with the state in which Cell 5 was found. The investigations that followed were not impartial and unprejudiced, but rather served to confirm to theory of self-inflammation. These circumstances are liable to erode the trust of the populace in law enforcement authorities and in the justice system.
With our work, we want to show that we do not have to stand by helplessly while these government crimes take place, but that we can develop our own strategies and put them into practice. We want to give all the families and friends of victims of police violence, all activist initiatives and supporters energy and motivation to fight this fight together. To make the murders stop!