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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 November 2018

Apparent suicide of Syrian refugee in German jail questioned amid fears of official whitewash

Amad A set fire to his jail cell officials say, but inconsistencies remain in the narrative

Opponents of regional justice minister Peter Biesenbach, with his hand raised, have called for his resignation (NRW)
Opponents of regional justice minister Peter Biesenbach, with his hand raised, have called for his resignation (NRW)

Pressure is mounting on German officials to take responsibility after a Syrian refugee falsely accused of sexual offences reportedly committed suicide in a jail amid claims officials ignored his cries for help.

The death of Amad A, 26, has attracted controversy over its haphazard handling and contradictory statements made by the regional justice minister in Dusseldorf who has had a lead role in investigations.

It took just under two weeks for Amad to die from severe injuries sustained after a fire broke out in his cell on 17 September in the town of Kleve on the Dutch border. An investigation, which was due to be debated at a legislative committee of the state parliament on Wednesday, said all signs indicated intentional arson “presumably with suicidal intent”.

The findings backed up those initially made by the fire department but have raised concern among the representatives.

Peter Biesenbach, the justice minister for North Rhine-Westphalia and a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union has defended the 60-page report. It was intended to clear up any remaining confusion over the case but could have potentially only added to it.

Bizarrely, the report said the 26-year-old called for help 15 minutes after the fire started via the telecom system in the cell. He was rebuffed by the prison worker tasked with communicating with inmates, who was on call with someone else Die Welt said. The attendant was said to have told Amad he would deal with the situation after, suggesting the seriousness of the incident was not fully conveyed or understood.

It is unclear how much Amad actually told the official about the situation. Currently unsubstantiated rumours the Syrian was ignored are likely to prompt a further investigation and more questions.

Only four minutes later did wardens act to put out the fire after noticing smoke coming from Amad’s cell, who was then rushed to a specialist clinic to deal with severe burns. Investigators have not said if the extra minutes could have been the difference between life and death. The report said he set light to the lower mattress of his bunk bed – Amad was alone in the cell at the time.

Mr Biesenbach has come under repeated attack from his detractors over contradictions he had made over the last couple of months, with the Green Party calling on him to resign. "The Ministry does everything for clarification,” he has said in the face of questions over his credibility.

As late as 10 October Mr Biesenbach was quoted as saying Amad did not use the call system to alert staff. The regional justice minister has lashed out at the “malicious” claims and insisted he was simply speaking based on information the authorities in Kleve had given him.

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There have also been questions raised as to why Amad had not been evaluated further to check for suicidal tendencies or mental health problems. If he had been suffering from such issues, greater protection measures would have been in place.

Accidental causes of the fire, such as Amad falling asleep with a cigarette, were ruled out because of the injuries sustained.

He was arrested in July on suspicion of multiple sexual assaults in a case of mistaken identity. The police at Kleve, where the Syrian was arrested, confused him for a Malian criminal who had numerous aliases, including the name Amad. Police have been condemned for not carrying out basic identity checks, such as looking at photo records.