German officials saw no suicide risk before terror suspect's hanging

German officials said on Thursday they found no indication that the Syrian refugee suspected of planning a bombing attack at an airport in Berlin was at risk of suicide, one day after the key terrorist suspect was found hanged in his prison cell.

Jaber al-Bakr, 22, hanged himself in his cell in the eastern city of Leipzig with his own T-shirt, Sebastian Gemkow, minister of justice in the German state of Saxony, told the press.

The minister insisted that judicial authorities did all they could to prevent the suspect from taking his own life.

"It should not have happened, but it did," Gemkow added.

Gemkow accepted political responsibility for the suicide, but refused to resign over the latest embarrassment in the case, which has been fraught with errors since a botched raid on Saturday.

Al-Bakr narrowly avoided arrest during the raid on his flat in the city of Chemnitz and was then able to make the journey of around 100 kilometres to Leipzig, despite a major police operation.

He was later captured and handed over to police by three of his compatriots. The Syrian refugees were lauded by politicians and the press as heroes.

However, sources have told dpa that al-Bakr had accused the refugees of complicity in the planned attack.

Thursday's press conference in the Saxon capital of Dresden focused on the circumstances surrounding al-Bakr's death and provided scant details on the ongoing investigation surrounding the suspected plot, which investigators say was linked to Islamic State.

Prosecutor Klaus Fleischmann said at the press conference that the three unnamed Syrians who captured al-Bakr are not part of the investigation. Fleischmann was not aware of their whereabouts after they apparently went into hiding for fear of Islamic State reprisals.

A magistrate had notified the prison that al-Bakr was at risk of taking his own life as he was on a hunger strike, the head of the correctional facility, Rolf Jacob, said. However, following a psychological assessment, prison officers increased the intervals between cell checks from 15 to 30 minutes.

Jacob said al-Bakr had displayed no signs of an acute risk of suicide and that a psychologist had found his behaviour "quiet, reserved" but not unusual.

He had alerted officers to a broken light in his cell, Jacob added. "That was considered vandalism," as opposed to indicating a risk of suicide.

Officers at the facility later noticed that electrical sockets had been tampered with in the cell where Jaber al-Bakr later hanged himself with his own T-shirt.

The law in Saxony rules out video monitoring of prison cells, authorities said.

The prison chief wondered if the inmate could have been treated differently. "Were we indeed perhaps a bit too trusting? Did we assign too much importance to outwards appearance?"

He concluded that officials had done everything within their power.

Al-Bakr's defence lawyer told dpa earlier Thursday he is "appalled and saddened" by the suicide, adding that he was "under the impression that he was being watched constantly."

Meanwhile German lawmakers reacted angrily to the death. In comments to Deutschlandfunk, Green politician Konstantin von Notz called the suicide a "fiasco," while Christian Democrat Wolfgang Bosbach called the suspect's death a "tragedy," adding that "an important source of information" had been lost.

German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere earlier Thursday said the "setback" in the investigation would make it difficult to establish details and identify further suspects.

Despite his death, authorities have insisted that the investigation into al-Bakr's terrorist plans will continue with the same intensity. One accomplice has now also been placed under permanent suicide watch.

State broadcaster MDR reported that al-Bakr had visited the Syrian city of Idlib after arriving in Germany as a refugee in February 2015. Citing his housemates in Germany, the report said that he had changed after his return from Syria.

De Maiziere confirmed Wednesday that al-Bakr had been investigated in 2015 but that authorities had failed to find anything.

"It is not clear when he started to become radicalized," the minister said.

Last update: Thu, 13/10/2016 - 14:13

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