Germany’s Stephen Lawrence

January 11, 2012 — Comment

Written by Eddie Bruce-Jones

How can lessons from the Lawrence case be applied to that of Oury Jalloh, who was burned to death in a German police cell seven years ago?

Last Tuesday, here in the UK, two men were found guilty of the 1993 murder of Stephen Lawrence. This verdict, eighteen years in the making, gave the nation a chance to reflect on the dramatic changes that have resulted from the multiple investigations around the murder, including the ground-breaking Macpherson report (1999), which brought institutional racism among the police into the national spotlight. The Lawrence murder and the legislation that ensued have marked a transformative era in UK race relations, dramatically increasing public awareness about institutional racism and changing the way Britain does policing.

Just a few days later, on 7 January, activists in Germany were preparing to march on the streets of Dessau to commemorate the most important and controversial death in custody in recent German history. They marched from the central train station to the police station to remember the death of a man from Sierra Leone named Oury Jalloh, and this day was the seventh anniversary of his death. The trial concerning his death is ongoing, set to end in the next few weeks. Jalloh burned to death while chained by his hands and feet to a fireproof mattress in a tiled cell in a police station. Demonstrators this year put flowers on the steps of the station, with the same questions in their minds as they had seven years ago. Why did the police turn off the smoke alarms? How could Jalloh have physically burned himself? Why were hallway cameras turned away from his cell door, why did CCTV footage get erased, why do no officers seem to remember the events of the day… These and a long list of other questions plague not only Jalloh’s friends, family, human rights activists and Germany’s black community, who feel outrage, shame and exasperation at the official denials, but are also beginning to open up fissures in the consciousness of the nation.

There are two main aspects of the Oury Jalloh trial that must be considered if the German justice system is to progress on the related issues of police brutality and institutional racism. The first is the transparency with which courts, police and state prosecutors work to facilitate a real investigation into potential murders. The second aspect is the respect for civil and political rights of all parties in the crucial aftermath of a brutal death-in particular, the right to critique ineffective state approaches to finding the most likely cause of death.

Hollow trial

In Germany, there is no mandatory inquest procedure when a person dies in police custody, as there is in the United Kingdom. Additionally, there is no national independent police complaints commission or regional equivalent in Sachsen-Anhalt, where Jalloh died. With that in mind, consider the following.

The Oury Jalloh trial has, for many watchers, been a farce from its inception in 2007. The charges brought initially were civil negligence charges, which operate on the rather eccentric premise that Jalloh, in a drunken state, somewhere during his unexpected detention on public disorder charges, hid a lighter from police (on or in some part of his body other than his pants pockets, which were checked) and, while in four-point restraints, ripped open the robust mattress on which he was lying on his back, set the cotton filling alight, and managed not to scream until just before the fire completely engulfed him and destroyed the mattress. Police investigators have failed numerous attempts to recreate the speed, temperature and resulting damage of a fire in this scenario, given the other factual assertions in the defence. Many people believe that more common-sense charges would have been murder charges, which would have allowed the court to investigate other elements. However, with so much evidence missing or destroyed, even that flexibility might not have helped, since no one is talking. But the silence in 2012 mirrors the silence in 2005, where the police autopsy did not find the broken nose and burst eardrum that the community-sponsored independent autopsy found. Jalloh’s parents rejected the infamous €5,000 offered to them not to add themselves to the initial lawsuit. Like the brave Lawrence family, Jalloh’s family would not be satisfied with money, they wanted the truth about how their son died. It is unfortunate that they will not get an explanation from this trial.

Suppressing speech and silencing dissent

One of Oury Jalloh’s best friends is Mouctar Bah. Bah, who leads the Initiative in Remembrance of Oury Jalloh e.V., played a critical role in 2007 in bringing Jalloh’s parents from Sierra Leone to add themselves to the state lawsuit against the police, informing the German community about the murky circumstances of Jalloh’s death, and supporting the 2008 appeal of the acquittal verdict in the first trial. His energy and social advocacy over the last few years has earned him a Carl-von-Ossietzky human rights medal from the International Human Rights League in Berlin. This advocacy has also earned him a significant backlash from the police in Dessau, where he lives. His licence to run an internet café was revoked and reinstated only after a number of years of fighting. On a trial date in August, when Bah spoke out of turn in the courtroom, police physically removed him from the court and forced him onto the ground, injuring his arm to the point where he needed medical care. At the peaceful demonstration last Saturday, Bah, who generally displays impressive patience and calmness, was pepper-sprayed and beaten unconscious by police officers-and is still in hospital (at the time of writing). Imagine the scandal if a member of the Met police were to attack someone from the Lawrence family as they marched for justice for their son. Bah was the most seriously injured of any demonstrator, though other prominent African members of the Initiative were also injured by police.

Police have also attempted to suppress the free speech of protestors. Last year, they issued a memorandum that called for closer regulation of members of the Initiative, characterising them as trouble-makers. Immediately thereafter, they instituted identity checks at the courthouse for this public trial, setting up a photocopier at the door to take copies of identity cards and passports. Before last Saturday’s demonstration, police visited Bah in his internet café and informed him that if he or other activists used the seven-year-used campaign slogan ‘Oury Jaloh – that was murder!’, they would be brought up on criminal charges. Legal advisors believe that such criminal defamation charges would not actually stand up in court, and in 2006, the regional administrative court of Sachsen-Anhalt issued a decision that forbidding the slogan would violate the free speech of protestors. Nevertheless, the police tried, for an hour, to prevent Saturday’s demonstration on the grounds that the slogan was criminal, ripping signs and banners from the hands of the activists and standing in their way. This intimidation certainly illustrates the competing interests of some officers in a trial that is clearly already a stain on the region and its respect for due process. The German Interior Minister, Holger Stahlknecht, subsequently expressed his disagreement with the order to confiscate the signs and had the police chief in charge of Dessau moved to another district.

What can Germany learn from the Stephen Lawrence trial?

The Oury Jalloh death, like the Stephen Lawrence murder, has been tragic for not only for the victims’ friends and families, but for society in general. The difference is that the Lawrence family, with the help of certain parts of civil society and important legal advancements, have managed to push the justice system in the UK to recognise its own failings. This is an achievement that cannot be overstated, and it has taken a great deal of time. The Macpherson report came seven years after the death of Lawrence, and those seven years have already elapsed in the German case. What the German population cannot afford to do is to let slip the opportunity to use Jalloh’s misfortune to reshape the way that Germany deals with institutional racism and police brutality.

It seems that the first thing that should happen is that the rest of Germany and Europe be made aware of the institutional dimensions of Jalloh’s story and his and similar stories committed to public memory. By establishing that patterns exist, a report can be made on a policy level that somehow describes police brutality and institutional racism, including not only physical violence and custodial deaths, but also intimidation, suppression of free speech and police behaviour. This is not to say that the Macpherson report or the Independent Police Complaints Commission will be directly transferrable to the German context, but they do provide blueprints of approaches to identify and tackle the problem of institutional racism and police violence.

Secondly, Germany could certainly benefit from an inquest procedure for deaths, particularly custodial deaths. Inquests occur regularly in the UK, and the procedures, while not uncontroversial and by no means perfect, do offer a bit more flexibility for evidentiary findings because their purpose is to ascertain the cause and circumstances of death. (Proving the guilt or innocence of a third party is, then, a secondary issue, albeit a highly relevant one.) If this were the focus of the Oury Jalloh trial, it would have been nonsensical to simply assume that the deceased committed suicide.

These issues are important not only because they acknowledge institutional racism and hold law enforcement agencies and the judiciary to account, but also because they would help hold the federal government to account in terms of its responsibilities under Articles 2 and 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which provide for the right to life and the right to be free of torture and inhuman treatment. These issues may disproportionately affect certain groups of society, given ingrained prejudices and lack of political power, but on a broader scale, they affect everyone. The general public in Germany should be highly concerned with this case, currently scheduled to end this March, and its social relevance. The rest of Europe cannot afford to look away.

Related links

Read an IRR News story: ‘Oury Jalloh International Independent Commission’

The Initiative in Remembrance of Oury Jalloh e.V.

For more information, please visit Tod eines Asylanten, by the journalist Margo Overath (in German), The Initiative in Remembrance of Oury Jalloh e.V. (in German) and the founding statement of the Oury Jalloh International Independent Commission' (in English). Eddie Bruce-Jones is a Lecturer at Birkbeck College School of Law at the University of London and a member of the Oury Jalloh International Investigative Commission.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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