German officials demand answers after suspect strangles himself

A hearse leaves the prison in Leipzig, eastern Germany, early Thursday morning.
Jan Woitas ~ dpa via AP

BERLIN -- A 22-year-old Syrian man suspected of planning an Islamic extremist bombing attack strangled himself by tying his shirt to the bars of his jail cell, German officials said Thursday.

Rolf Jacob, the head of the prison where 22-year-old bomb suspect Jaber Albakr was held, told reporters in Dresden a trainee guard checked on the prisoner at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, and when he returned for another check at 7:45 p.m., he found Albakr hanging lifeless.

Attempts made to revive Albakr were unsuccessful, and a doctor declared him dead a half-hour later, Saxony justice minister Sebastian Gemkow said.

Facing widespread criticism such a high-profile prisoner could take his own life, authorities said multiple precautions were taken.

"It should not have happened, even though we did everything we could to prevent it," Gemkow said.

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

As a precaution, he was given pants with no belt and was checked on at regular intervals.

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

"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.

Still, he said it would have been against German law to put him preventatively into a special cell designed for a prisoner assessed as an "acute, clearly visible suicide risk."

Wolfgang Bosbach, a senior member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's party and security expert, told n-tv given his behavior, Albakr should have been under constant observation.

"The suicide danger was known; it was not just an assumption," Bosbach said.

Albakr's public defender, Dresden attorney Alexander Huebner, said prison authorities should have had his client under constant watch.

"I'm unbelievably shocked and absolutely speechless that something like this could have happened," he told Focus magazine.

Germany's top security official, Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, said Albakr's death would make the investigation into whether he had accomplices in the thwarted plot far more difficult.

Saxony state authorities already were facing criticism after Albakr eluded police as they prepared to raid an apartment where he had been staying in the city of Chemnitz on Saturday. Inside the apartment, police found highly volatile explosives and a homemade bomb vest.

Albakr finally was arrested Monday in Leipzig after three fellow Syrians tied him up and alerted police.

He had been granted asylum after coming to Germany last year and had been under surveillance by German domestic intelligence since last month.

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

"There was a check against security authorities' data in 2015, but without any hits," he said. "It's not clear when he was radicalized."

German authorities have said they believe he had links to the Islamic State group and was thought to be planning to attack a Berlin airport, possibly as soon as this week.

The three Syrians who captured the suspect had been granted asylum, and their "behavior deserves praise and recognition," de Maiziere said.

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 the Chemnitz apartment where police found the hidden explosives and was arrested over the weekend as a co-conspirator.