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Cell death deprives German authorities of key source on IS

Saxony attourney general Klaus Fleischmann, Willi Schmid, corrections department head of the Saxon justice ministry; Rolf Jacob, director of the Justizvollzugsanstalt (JVA) Leipzig prison, ,and Saxony justice minister Sebastian Gemkow, from left, speak during a press conference on the death in Leipzig JVA of Jaber al-Bakr, who was arrested on suspicion of terrorism, during a press conference in Dresden, Germany, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016. The 22-year-old Syrian was found hanged in his cell on Wednesday night. (Arno Burgi/dpa via AP)
October 13, 2016 - 9:15 AM

BERLIN - Relief about the capture of a young Syrian suspected of preparing a bomb attack in Germany this week gave way to frustration after he strangled himself in his jail cell, dashing authorities' hopes of gaining intelligence about the man's alleged links to the Islamic State group.

Jaber Albakr's apparently self-inflicted death late Wednesday has likely deprived authorities of a key source of information about what extremist groups might be planning in Germany, which has so far been spared the kind of mass-casualty attacks seen in neighbouring France.

The 22-year-old's suicide with a T-shirt also put a glaring spotlight on law enforcement failures in the eastern state of Saxony, where Albakr had evaded arrest for two days until a trio of fellow Syrians tied him up and turned him in.

"What happened last night demands swift and comprehensive investigation by the justice authorities," Germany's top security official, Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, said Thursday. "What's more, it makes the investigation into possible masterminds and other accomplices harder."

Authorities suspected Albakr of planning to use home-made explosives to carry out an attack on one of Berlin's two airports this week. Following his arrest early Monday, officials said they were investigating possible links to IS.

The group already has claimed responsibility for two attacks in Germany in July, in which several people were injured but only the attackers died.

Officials said Thursday that Albakr strangled himself by tying his shirt to a security grate inside his cell at the jail in Saxony's biggest city Leipzig.

Prison chief Rolf Jacob told reporters in the state capital Dresden that a trainee guard had checked on the prisoner at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, and that when she returned for another check at 7:45 p.m. she found Albakr hanging lifeless. Attempts to revive Albakr were unsuccessful, and a doctor declared him dead a half-hour later.

Facing widespread criticism that such a high-profile prisoner was able to kill himself, Saxony state authorities said multiple precautions were taken.

Albakr was assessed by a psychologist with whom he discussed what impact his behaviour in prison would have on his trial, leading her to believe he was considering his long-term future, Jacob said.

On the other hand, Albakr had refused all food at the prison and accepted only one glass of water, the prison chief said. He also had destroyed both a lighting fixture and an electrical outlet in his cell — actions that were believed to be vandalism and "not interpreted as a suicide attempt," Jacob said.

"It was clear that we were dealing with someone here where we had to work very carefully, and suicide risk played a role," he said.

But while Albakr was given pants with no belt and checked on at regular intervals, prison authorities decided against putting him in a special cell for prisoners assessed as an "acute, clearly visible suicide risk."

Albakr's public defender, Dresden attorney Alexander Huebner, told The Associated Press prison authorities should have done more to prevent his client from harming himself.

"I can't understand how they didn't assume there was a suicide risk," he said. "In this case, there should have been total surveillance with someone sitting in front of him."

Huebner said he last spoke to his client for 90 minutes on Tuesday and noted that he was agitated.

Saxony's Justice Minister Sebastian Gemkow acknowledged that, with hindsight, mistakes had been made.

"It should not have happened, even though we did everything we could to prevent it," Gemkow said, dismissing suggestions that he might resign over the lapse.

Authorities have another suspect alleged to have been involved in the plot in custody, identified only as Khalil A. in keeping with German privacy laws.

The 33-year-old Syrian was the tenant of an apartment in the city of Chemnitz where police found hidden explosives and was arrested over the weekend as a co-conspirator.

A spokesman for Germany's attorney general — who handles terrorism-related cases — said prosecutors would continue to investigate the case.

"We have to look at this soberly," Stefan Biehl told The Associated Press. "One always hopes that the accused provide further information. If one of two accused persons falls away then a potential source of information disappears."

"We're simply going to continue with what's left and try to determine the background to this deed," said Biehl.

Albakr was granted asylum after arriving in Germany last year, but had been under surveillance by German domestic intelligence since last month.

He eluded Saxony state police on Saturday as they prepared to raid the Chemnitz apartment where he had been staying. Inside the apartment police found highly volatile explosives and a homemade bomb vest.

He was arrested Monday in Leipzig after one of the three Syrians who tied him up brought a mobile phone photograph of the suspect to local police.

On Wednesday, de Maiziere said that Albakr had undergone a security check last year, but it did not turn up anything suspicious.

___

Kerstin Sopke in Dresden, Germany, contributed to this report.

News from © The Associated Press, 2016
The Associated Press

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