BERLIN (Reuters) - Police and judicial officials in the German state of Saxony faced a blaze of criticism on Thursday after a Syrian man suspected of plotting to bomb a Berlin airport killed himself in a detention centre where he had been deemed not at risk of suicide.
Jaber Albakr, 22, who evaded police on Saturday and sparked a two-day manhunt before being turned in by fellow Syrians, hanged himself in his cell on Wednesday evening with his T-shirt, officials said.
Facing calls to step down, Saxony’s State Justice Minister Sebastian Gemkow, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives, told a news conference the suicide “should never have happened” but he denied authorities had made any mistakes.
Politicians from across the spectrum rounded on Merkel’s conservatives who rule in Saxony after the suicide, which followed the bungled police attempt - acting on a secret service tip-off - to catch Albakr on Saturday.
“This is an unprecedented sequence of failures by the police and judicial system,” said Thomas Oppermann, head of the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) parliamentary group. “It looks as if Saxony lacks any capacity to fight terrorism professionally.”
Albakr’s defence lawyer, Alexander Huebner, accused the authorities of a “justice scandal”, adding: “I’m totally shocked and absolutely speechless that something like this could happen.”
The chief of the detention centre, Rolf Jacob, said Albakr was questioned by a psychologist at the centre and determined not to be at serious risk of committing suicide.
The Syrian, who arrived in Germany in February last year, appeared calm and was monitored at 15 minute intervals. These were lengthened to 30 minutes despite Albakr pulling a lamp in his cell out of its fitting and tampering with a plug socket.
“There was no major sign that he was upset,” said Jacob, before adding that at 7.45 p.m. (1745 GMT) on Wednesday the suspect was found having hanged himself.
Huebner said Albakr’s suicidal tendencies had been well documented, adding that his client decided to go on hunger strike directly after his arrest on Monday.
Little else is known about Albakr, who evaded police in Chemnitz on Saturday and travelled to Leipzig, where he met up with a group of Syrians he contacted via an online network before they tied him up at their flat and alerted police.
Die Welt newspaper, citing investigative sources, reported on Tuesday that Albakr had spent several months in Turkey this year, leaving in the spring and returning to Germany in late August.
Prosecutors are still investigating whether the suspect had any accomplices. “We don’t know yet if there were people pulling the strings,” Klaus Fleischmann, chief public prosecutor in the state of Saxony, told the news conference.
Reporting by Michael Nienaber and Paul Carrel; editing by Ralph Boulton