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The death in custody follows an initially botched attempt to arrest Jaber al-Bakr last Saturday, which sparked a nationwide manhunt that ended only when three other Syrians caught him and handed him over to police on Monday.
Two days after Bakr’s dramatic capture, the 22-year-old was found hanged with his T-shirt in his jail cell in the eastern city of Leipzig.
The death sparked cries of outrage and concern that Germany may never learn the plans for an attack on a Berlin airport Bakr had allegedly wanted to carry out in the name of the Islamic State group.
Prison chief Rolf Jacob told journalists that a “very experienced psychologist” had interviewed Bakr and assessed that “there was no acute suicide risk”.
Although the detainee had begun a hunger strike following his imprisonment, he had been “quiet and calm, there was no indication of emotional issues”.
The psychologist, who had no previous experience with terror suspects, had therefore suggested that the regular checks, which were initially set at 15 minute intervals, be reduced to half hourly from Tuesday, said Jacob.
The suspect was nonetheless held in isolation as he was deemed to pose a potential threat to other inmates.
“I am incredibly shocked and in disbelief that this could have happened,” Bakr’s lawyer Alexander Huebner told Bild daily.
Huebner said his client had already “smashed lamps and manipulated power points”, but “he was not under watch day and night, even though the suicide risk was known”.
Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said the suicide had “obviously hampered investigations” into the alleged terror plot and posed a “setback in the search for other accomplices, backers, networks and such”.
‘Loss of control’
The incident showed a “complete loss of control by authorities” in Saxony, the conservative wing of the Social Democratic Party said in a statement.
Greens party lawmaker Konstantin von Notz told Deutschlandfunk radio that a close look was needed to identify who was responsible for what he branded a “fiasco”.
Debate has been raging over how jihadists should be monitored in custody.
In neighbouring France, Salah Abdeslam, the suspect believed to be the last surviving member of the terror squad that killed 130 people in Paris in November, is held in isolation and continuously monitored by special guards.
Authorities are anxious to prevent any attempts at a jail break, but also suicide, as such suspects are deemed to be sitting on a gold mine of information on jihadists’ modus operandi.
Deploring the death in custody, the Christian Democratic Union’s Jan-Marco Luczak said: “The suspect could have given lots of valuable information about the activities or structure of the Islamic State group.
“In such a sensitive situation, the monitoring should have been air-tight,” he said.
Investigations are now likely to focus on Bakr’s flatmate, named as Khalil. A, who is accused of having helped him to procure bomb making material on the internet “in full knowledge of his plans of attack”.
The 33-year-old, who was formally arrested Sunday, has been put under continuous watch in the Leipzig prison, said Willi Schmid, a senior official at the Saxony justice ministry.
Botched arrest bid
Germany’s domestic security service had alerted police last Friday that Bakr might be plotting a bomb attack. Investigators have since said he was thought to have links with the Islamic State group.
Early last Saturday, police closed in on him in the eastern city of Chemnitz, but he managed to slip away after they fired a warning shot.
Police officers monitoring Bakr were reportedly so conspicuous that his neighbour noticed them too, Bild daily reported, adding that a police vehicle was openly parked in front of the apartment block.
Police were later widely mocked after an investigator explained that officers could not chase Bakr because they were wearing 35 kilos worth of protective gear.
Police discovered 1.5 kilos (over three pounds) of TATP, the homemade explosive that was used by IS jihadists in the Paris and Brussels attacks, in Bakr’s flat.
They said that he was preparing a “bomb, possibly in the form of a suicide vest”.
Bakr was finally turned in late Sunday by three Syrian refugees who had overpowered and tied him up after realising that he was sought by police.
Germany has been on edge since two IS-claimed attacks in July — an axe rampage on a train in Wuerzburg that injured five, and a suicide bombing in Ansbach in which 15 people were hurt.
The bloodshed has fuelled concerns over Germany’s record influx of nearly 900,000 refugees and migrants in 2015.