Fresh evidence in the case of Oury Jalloh, a Sierra Leonean refugee who burnt to death in police custody in Dessau, Germany in 2005, has revealed that he could not have set himself on fire, as claimed by German police.
Investigators have found that Jalloh, who was shackled to a bed by officers prior to his death, is unlikely to have committed suicide. It is suspected that a third party had a hand in his death.
It had been previously claimed Jalloh had been able to tear a hole in the fire protection covering on the mattress he was bound to and set the fire with a cigarette lighter, which the police did not discover when they processed him nor was it found in an initial search of the scene after his death.
A melted down lighter was only found in the days subsequent to Jalloh's death. On investigation by forensics, the lighter, which was discovered underneath Jalloh’s charred body, did not contain his DNA or fibres from his clothing.
A group of Jalloh’s friends and antiracist activists formed an initiative in his name and have been fighting a 12-year campaign, which has seen the group fund investigations and mount legal challenges, in order to uncover the circumstances around his death.
A spokesperson for the Initiative in Remembrance of Oury Jalloh said: “We are fighting for the truth and the acknowledgment that Oury did not burn himself, he was burnt.”
A second autopsy of Jalloh’s body, funded by the Initiative, found he had a broken nose and burst eardrum. Another investigation revealed that he had much lower levels of soot in his lungs than would be expected in the circumstances. This indicates that the West African man may not have been breathing, or was not breathing deeply, when the fire was lit. Evidence also suggests that Jalloh had been doused in accelerant.
With this evidence in mind and the ongoing struggle to get justice for Jalloh, activists point to deeply embedded structural racism within German society, the police force and the justice system more broadly.
“The authorities and the German public can not imagine a black person being burnt by a police officer. They even deny that it's a possibility. This is what our people have experienced for centuries, all this burning”, added the Initiative’s spokesperson.
Jalloh’s case is not an isolated one. While the names of people who have died in custody in both in the UK and the US, such as Rashan Charles, Seni Lewis, Mike Brown and Freddie Gray, are widely known, few have heard of those who have lost their lives in similar circumstances in Germany.
A case with striking similarities to Oury Jalloh’s, is that of Jaja Diabi. 21-year old Jaja Diabi was arrested in possession of 1.65 grams of cannabis close to Hamburg’s Reeperbahn in 2016 and held for a number of days. Diabi died in his cell. The authorities reported the cause of death as suicide by hanging, a claim which his family and friends reject.
Anti-racist activist and member of Diabi’s Initiative, Leila Hassan, said: “It hurts me so much that another black person has been killed and nothing is being done. I didn't see anything about it in the newspapers or hear any discussion about it in the Left scene in Hamburg. The silence around Jaja’s death makes me want to scream.”