BERLIN — Germany’s highest-profile prisoner, a Syrian refugee suspected of plotting to detonate a suicide vest at a Berlin airport, strangled himself in his jail cell in the eastern city of Leipzig, German officials said Thursday.
Jaber Albakr, 22, was found dead Wednesday night by a trainee guard, the prison’s warden, Rolf Jacob, told reporters. The detainee, who had been arrested Monday, had effectively hanged himself by tying his T-shirt to the bars of his cell.
“This should not have happened,” Sebastian Gemkow, the Saxony state justice minister, said at a news conference Thursday. “We did everything possible to prevent it.”
Politicians across the political spectrum reacted to the incident with shock and outrage.
“In the face of the gravity of the alleged offense . . . and the considerable threat our country faces, this is a tragedy,” Wolfgang Bosbach, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, told the Bild newspaper. “How could this even happen, if Albakr was monitored because of an acute suicide risk?”
Bosbach’s rattled reaction mirrored that of many Germans, who wondered whether authorities could secure the country if they were not able to keep a major terrorism suspect alive. “A total loss of control by the authorities,” a group of Social Democratic lawmakers tweeted.
Officials in Leipzig defended themselves by saying they did all they could to prevent Albakr from harming himself or others. Officers had initially inspected his cell every 15 minutes. After Albakr spoke to a psychologist, the window was extended to 30 minutes. The suicide occurred while he was alone for 15 minutes, between 7:30 and 7:45 p.m., officials said.
Albakr’s lawyer, Alexander Hübner, accused prison officials of inadequately monitoring his client, who had been on a hunger strike since his arrest. Albakr had exhibited destructive behavior, destroying a light fixture and an electrical outlet in his cell, Hübner said.
“There was the option to monitor him continuously,” Hübner told The Washington Post. “With him not eating and tearing out the socket, there would have been enough reason for this. . . . To say that nobody made any mistakes . . . misses the point. . . . Everyone kept saying what an important witness he was. If for no other reason, authorities should have made sure because of that, that nothing happens to him.”
The warden confirmed Albakr’s destructive actions but said that they were viewed as vandalism and that, based on the psychologist’s report, administrators had decided not to move Albakr to a special suicide-proof cell. Jacob acknowledged that the psychologist had no previous experience with terrorist suspects.
German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière called Thursday for the circumstances of the suicide to be cleared up “fully and quickly” and described Albakr’s death as a “setback” for terrorism investigations.
The incident was not the only blunder by German law enforcement authorities in this case. After Albakr’s arrest, Bild published a list of “five mishaps” that had occurred during the hunt for the suspect. Police observation of his house had been so obvious, for example, that even the neighbors noticed it and Albakr managed to escape. He traveled about 60 miles before being captured and handed over to police by a group of fellow Syrians two days after a massive manhunt was launched.
According to German media reports, Albakr had also shown up at a former address of his and a resident had called the police. The resident said police arrived more than an hour after his call, when the suspect had already left. Germany’s chief prosecutor’s office, which is in charge of the investigation, declined to comment Thursday.
Walfried O. Sauer, a former counterterrorism officer and now a private security consultant, said he fears that the string of events could give the impression that Germany’s security agencies are not equipped to cope with the threat of major terrorist attacks.
“It’s an embarrassment, especially considering the explosive political implications it could have all the way up to Angela Merkel,” Sauer said. “After all, there are going to be elections next year.”
Albakr, who was granted asylum after arriving in Germany last year, had been under surveillance by German intelligence since last month. Officials said he was believed to have links to the Islamic State and was suspected of planning to attack a Berlin airport as soon as this week.