Can police databases kill?

It is hardly possible for asylum seekers to correct wrong entries in German information systems. In North Rhine-Westphalia, these false entries led to the death of Amad Ahmad. In Hesse, too, this digital police arbitrariness is now becoming evident.

On 29 September 2018, Amad Ahmad, originally from Syria, died of his burn injuries in the Sankt Antonius Hospital in Kleve. Twelve days earlier, the 26-year-old had been found in his burning cell in the prison in the district town. He or someone else had piled up the mattress, bedding and sheets and set them on fire. Because there are no smoke detectors in the cells of the prison in North Rhine-Westphalia, Ahmad could only be rescued after long minutes and therefore only with severe burns.

The case has been investigated by a sub-committee of the Düsseldorf state parliament for almost two years. It is not only the circumstances of Ahmad’s death that are to be clarified. In fact, the Syrian was suicidal. However, the fact that he really wanted to die does not fit with the fact that he triggered the emergency call via the intercom and apparently opened the windows.

Accidental or deliberate mix-up?

Still dubious, however, are above all the circumstances of his arrest. Ahmad had been innocently detained for more than two months at the time of his death. He was imprisoned on the basis of an arrest warrant issued in the name of Amedy G. from Mali. The police action was obviously a case of mistaken identity. The committee of enquiry is to clarify whether this was done accidentally or intentionally.

Both persons were registered in the information system of the German police. It is operated centrally by the Federal Criminal Police Office and is therefore called INPOL-Z. The police forces of the Länder are connected to it via subsystems. Amedy G. was wanted for arrest for theft via the Hamburg INPOL system. INPOL in North Rhine-Westphalia recorded minor offences for Amad Ahmad, but no wanted persons.

„Death was probably the result of faulty police software,“ was how Germany’s largest regional newspaper, WAZ, described the case last summer. Because in the parlamentarian investigation committee it came out that the INPOL data records of the two men from Syria and Mali had been falsely merged. More precisely, false identities (so-called aliases) that Amedy G. is said to have used were also stored in Ahmad’s police file. An assistant was responsible for the process, but it is still unclear who gave her the order to do so and when the merging took place.

Problematic search for „cross matches

Police information systems can search for so-called „cross matches“. This concerns, for example, the spelling of names if the persons concerned have the same date of birth. In North Rhine-Westphalia, the INPOL system is operated by the company Deutsche Telekom Healthcare and Security Solutions. It has been known for at least three years that the platform’s cross-reference search is faulty. This was confirmed by Annette Brückner first wrote a report for the TV magazine MONITOR and later appeared as an expert witness in the committee of enquiry into the case of Amad Ahmad. According to this, the software compares not only the clear names but also the alias names stored in INPOL.

The arrest and subsequent death of Amad Ahmad could therefore indeed have been triggered by the erroneous cross-reference search of the Telekom software. However, the photo comparison of the two men alone would have shown that one is dark-skinned and the other light-skinned, so they cannot be the same person under any circumstances. The examination of the fingerprints taken from Ahmad when he was arrested would also have proven this beyond doubt.

The suspicion that the manipulation of the INPOL data records was intentional, namely by police officers who knew about the long-standing error of the system, has therefore not been dispelled. This is also indicated by incomplete database logs are supposed to document every change of a data record. Thus it is conceivable that the merging of the data records only took place after Ahmad’s arrest in order to be able to show a reason for it in the first place. The Syrian was picked up by two patrol cars at a quarry pond after a group of women complained about his sexualised behaviour. The call was received by a father of one of the women involved, who is a police officer in the interior and who then alerted his colleagues at the police station.

All-knowing Immigration Office in Hesse

In Hesse, too, the police may store false information about people without being able to trace it or change it. This is proven by the case of the Algerian citizen Tarek Ramdani, who is registered as an asylum seeker with his family in Marburg. The Immigration Office and the police claim to have knowledge that the Algerian has used several false names in the past, among other things to commit theft. Ramdani denies this, but admits that before his asylum application he used the alias „Sofian ben Abdalah“, which is a combination of a name and first name that is common in North Africa.

In the asylum procedure, Ramdani has long since identified himself by Algerian documents and identity papers. His details are stored in the Hessian INPOL file as so-called Leading Personnel. This refers to a data record that can be assigned without doubt to a specific, real person. The alias personal details allegedly used by him are stored in INPOL as an „A-group“. There are six other fantasy names for Ramdani in it.

His police files also include five other persons, including two of his brothers. All of them are said to have used the personal name „Sofian ben Abdalah“ in the past. Some or all of them have been in the same initial reception centre in North Rhine-Westphalia for a while.

Fake aliases are not deleted

It is therefore conceivable that whenever the name „Sofian ben Abdalah“ appears in connection with police measures in Hesse or North Rhine-Westphalia, Tarek Ramdani is subsequently harassed with reprisals. As in the case of the Syrian Amad Ahmad, this could get him into big trouble.

It is already often impossible for German nationals to correct false entries in police databases. The consequences of this digital police despotism were experienced by 32 journalists at the 2017 G20 summit in Hamburg, who were falsely stored as „left-wing extremists“ in INPOL.

This is even more difficult for asylum seekers, which can be well observed in the case of Ramdani. With the help of a lawyer and supporters from Marburg and the surrounding area, the Algerian is trying to get the police and the Immigration Office to delete the false alias entries. In the meantime, it had happened several times that a crime that was obviously not committed by him was assigned to him.

Counterattack by the Immigration Office

In the region of Central Hesse, the case of Tarek Ramdani has been a political controversy for years; the authorities consider him an „Intensive offender“. However, of the 20 crimes he is accused of, most probably did not take place at all or were not brought to trial. The remaining charges concerned unauthorised residence, theft, driving only with his Algerian driving licence and using public transport free of charge.

An attempted deportation of the family failed two years ago because the pilot of the plane did not want to transport Ramdani’s heavily pregnant wife to Algeria. The Immigration Office therefore felt under pressure to justify itself and went on the counterattack. In a public lecture, the head of the office, Rudi Heimann, attacked Ramdani and disclosed sensitive information about him.

The Hessian authorities do not want to investigate the contradictions in Ramdani’s files. One of his supporters suggested to the Immigration Office to help correct the false entries. Heimann, the head of the authority, has tersely declined the invitation. He had also instructed the person in charge not to answer such requests any more. Tarek Ramdani and his supporters now hope that he will never find himself in a situation like Amad Ahmad in Kleve.

Image: Demonstration against the dead of Amad Ahmad (@infozentrale).

Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.