History of Europe

When Achidi John died:the use of emetics and its consequences

At the end of 2001, 19-year-old Achidi John died in Hamburg. He is said to have dealt drugs. In order to convict him, an emetic had been forcefully administered to him. The young man was not the only victim.

by Oliver Diedrich, NDR.de

It's December 9, 2001. "I want them!" screams Achidi John in the Hamburg Institute for Forensic Medicine - "I'm going to die!". He tries to defend himself with hands and feet. But several police officers hold the 19-year-old. What happens now is common practice in many German cities and possible on the orders of the public prosecutor's office or a judge.

"I want them!":The procedure in the forensic medicine

At a demo a year after John's death, participants demanded further clarification.

The cops tie up John. He's obviously panicking. A doctor inserts a feeding tube into his stomach - that is, she pushes a tube through his nose and throat into his stomach. Then, despite John's continued resistance, she gives John a large amount of water and the plant syrup Ipecacuanha - emetic, through the probe. After a short "acting time" John has to vomit. The young man chokes out 41 drug bullets during the procedure. But then something unexpected happens:Achidi John collapses and suffers cardiac arrest. On December 12, he was pronounced dead at the University Hospital in Eppendorf.

The head of the Institute for Forensic Medicine at the time, Professor Klaus Püschel, put on record how the operation went at that time during the later investigations into John's death.

Emetic is considered a "safer method"

John, who was born in Nigeria under a different name, had previously been arrested in the St. Georg district of Hamburg as a suspected dealer. Not for the first time. When the police seized it, the rejected asylum seeker is said to have swallowed something. The officials suspect packaged drugs for street sale. So these could provide evidence of John's drug dealing. In such cases there are basically two options:If the suspect is in custody, you can wait until the swallowed objects are excreted naturally. This is inconvenient for the officials who have to examine the excrements. And it is dangerous for the suspect:If drugs were really swallowed, the containers in the body can break and the person concerned can overdose. Second possibility:the administration of an emetic. At the time, many doctors considered this to be the safer method - as long as it was done voluntarily. But that was not the case with Achidi John - on the contrary.

Compulsory use of emetics since 2001 in Hamburg

The emetic Ipecacuanha is considered harmless - as long as it is taken voluntarily.

Frankfurt am Main, where this method was used as early as the 1990s, is regarded as a pioneer in the forced administration of emetics in the fight against drug trafficking. When a suspect almost died in the process in 1998, the subject was increasingly discussed in public. In 2001, the controversial procedure was also introduced in Hamburg:The then Interior Senator Olaf Scholz (SPD) gave the go-ahead for the possibility of the forced use of emetics in the city - against the resistance of the Green coalition partner. At that time, Hamburg was facing a general election, before which the Social Democrats had to fear that the CDU and Ronald Schill's young Rechtsstaater Offensive party would be overrun on the subject of "Law and Order".

Press headline:"Death penalty through the back door"

Although the SPD will be the strongest force in the election, the CDU, Schill party and FDP can take over the government together in Hamburg. When Achidi John died while using emetics, the Rechtsstaater Offensive party already provided the interior senator with Schill and the justice senator with Roger Kusch. The first mayor is the Christian Democrat Ole von Beust.

The reactions in the press to the young man's death were sometimes violent:"Death penalty through the back door", for example, was the headline in the left-liberal weekly newspaper "Der Freitag". The then President of the Hamburg Medical Association, Frank Ulrich Montgomery, called on the Senate to end the forcible administration of emetics. The 19-year-old's case confirms that such operations are "not justifiable from a medical point of view," says Montgomery. Some critics call the forced use of emetics torture. The assumption:The ruthless practice should also serve to deter small dealers. It is also noteworthy that the vast majority of those affected are black.

Schill, Kusch and SPD defend the use of emetics

Even before John is officially declared dead and an investigation into the case begins, Interior Senator Schill announces that emetics should continue to be used. They are an important tool for gathering evidence. The case is discussed in a council meeting shortly after John's death. "We are also affected, but that is limited," said Schill MP Frank Michael Bauer at the time. The dealer is not a victim, but a perpetrator. Justice Senator Kusch announces that the case will be reviewed:"Should weaknesses become apparent during the investigation, they must be remedied - nothing will change in the basic principle of the use of emetics."

On the one hand, SPD MP Michael Neumann concedes the fundamental responsibility of the Social Democrats for the use of emetics. "From our point of view, however, it should not be accepted that people are harmed." The SPD continues to support the compulsory administration of emetics - but the conditions must be improved. Shortly before the fatal operation, the von Beust government had lowered the hurdles for such operations, which led to a significant increase.

No judicial processing in Hamburg

A preliminary investigation by the public prosecutor's office after the death of the 19-year-old was dropped a few months later. The medics and officials who forced John to take the emetic were not to blame for his death, the finding said. An autopsy had shown that the circulatory collapse and John's death were due to heart disease. Subsequent attempts by John's father to start legal proceedings are rejected, among other things, because of formal errors.

Compulsory emetics also in Lower Saxony and Bremen

In Lower Saxony, too, suspected drug dealers were forcibly given emetics in the early 2000s in order to convict them. After the death of Achidi John in Hamburg, the practice there was temporarily suspended, but was allowed again in 2003. In Schleswig-Holstein emetics are not used under duress.

Bremen has allowed the use of emetics, even under duress, since the 1990s. The death in Hamburg does not lead to a temporary suspension there.

Scherf:"That was everyday evidence"

The then mayor and senator for justice, Henning Scherf (SPD), later claimed that he couldn't remember that after the case in Hamburg it was discussed in Bremen:"That was everyday life, criminal law and evidence-preserving everyday life." According to Scherf, everyone within the Bremen judiciary agreed on the admissibility of the procedure.

However, that changed abruptly in December 2004.

Bremen:Laye-Alama Condé dies after using emetics

On December 27, 2004, a suspected drug dealer was arrested in Weserstadt. He is also said to have swallowed cocaine pellets that could convict him. Laye-Alama Condé is 35 years old and comes from Sierra Leone. When he is supposed to take an emetic, he tries to defend himself. Police officers tie him to a chair. A doctor who works for the Forensic Medicine Institute in Bremen finally pushes a probe through Condé's nose and gives him emetics and water. When the suspect throws up, he initially manages to hold onto the apparently swallowed drug pellets with his teeth and swallow them again. The procedure, later described by witnesses as frighteningly brutal, is repeated several times. The physical condition of the prisoner is getting worse and worse. Foam comes out of his mouth and nose. But when the man's values ​​stabilize again, the doctor continues the measure. Condé's heartbeat and breathing become weaker and weaker and finally stop. Only then do paramedics come into action, who can initially revive the man. He dies in hospital several days later.

First trial in Bremen ends with acquittal

Water and vomit are later found in the dead man's lungs. Is the doctor who gave him the emetic to blame for Laye-Alama Condé's death? It takes almost four years for a court to find an answer. The presiding judge said when the verdict was announced in December 2008 that the police doctor was responsible for "numerous uncertainties, omissions and mistakes". But because he was completely overwhelmed with the situation, the doctor was not criminally guilty - acquittal. When the verdict is announced, there is a commotion. Spectators unfurl posters and chant that the act was murder.

Relatives of the victim successfully appeal the verdict. The Federal Court of Justice in Karlsruhe orders a new hearing before another chamber of the Bremen Regional Court.

There will be a second and third trial in Bremen

At the third trial in Bremen in 2013, there were also demonstrations against police violence in court.

The accused was also acquitted in the second trial in 2011. It cannot be established without a doubt that Condé died from the water that got into his lungs. According to the Bremen district court, "alternatives" are conceivable that "are not within the doctor's area of ​​responsibility". And again the Federal Court of Justice conceded the verdict. According to the federal judges, the taking of evidence did prove the guilt of the accused. The third trial in Bremen followed in 2013. This time it ends with the termination of the proceedings against a monetary condition:the former police doctor has to pay 20,000 euros to the victim's mother.

European Court of Justice condemns Germany

When the proceedings in Bremen ended, however, another court had long since created facts:the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). In the summer of 2006, the Strasbourg judges condemned Germany for the use of emetics in North Rhine-Westphalia:the measure in 1993 violated the ban on inhuman and degrading treatment, according to the court's decision. The court awarded the plaintiff, a man from Sierra Leone, compensation for pain and suffering in the amount of 10,000 euros. The administration of the emetic was not necessary. According to the judges, it should have waited for the man to naturally pass the swallowed drug sachets.

Strasbourg judge:"Violence bordering on brutality"

According to the ECtHR, the German authorities seriously violated the plaintiff's physical integrity. The use of a nasal tube was carried out "with violence bordering on brutality" and was "certainly painful and frightening". In addition, the Strasbourg judges found disproportionality:the amount of drugs found on the man was so small that he was subsequently only sentenced to a six-month suspended sentence. And:The court points out that in Germany two people have already died under duress while using emetics - in Hamburg and Bremen.

Judgment is over for compulsory emetics in Germany

The Strasbourg judgment is the end of a practice that has long since been banned in many other European countries. In Hamburg, the judicial authorities announced on August 1, 2006 that the federal state had finally decided not to use emetics. In practice, suspects who refuse to take the drug now have to wait in a "glass toilet" for possible evidence to be excreted. The Strasbourg judgment also led to a reversal in other federal states, where emetics were still compulsory at the time.

In the meantime, Hamburg has also stopped the "voluntary" administration of emetics to suspected dealers. The use was disproportionate, said Justice Senator Anna Gallina (Greens) in summer 2021:"The procedure is associated with health risks, as the past shows, and the forced use was also clearly condemned as a violation of human rights."

Who will take political responsibility?

It will be a long time, however, before political leaders apologize for the roughly 1,000 forced operations that have been carried out in Germany since 1991. At the end of 2020, the Bremen parliament decides to erect a memorial for Laye-Alama Condé. The deputies apologize to his family.

In Hamburg, even 20 years after the death of Achidi John, people are still not that far. In October 2021, the left-wing parliamentary group in the citizenship tabled a motion demanding that they take political responsibility for such operations and apologize to those affected and to Achidi John's relatives. In addition, the left demands the establishment of a memorial "at a central location on the grounds of the Eppendorf University Hospital" and the "payment of financial compensation to those affected". It's about a "warning that human dignity is indeed inviolable if we don't defend it uncompromisingly," said Left MP Deniz Celik.

Hamburg Parliament rejects Left-wing motion

The squatters of the Rote Flora in Hamburg gave the building the address "Achidi-John-Platz 1" in memory of the deceased. Since then, the lettering has been emblazoned there in different versions.

For the SPD, which ruled then as now, an apology is out of the question:Achidi John's death was "to be regretted, one can say that," said MP Urs Tabbert at the meeting. But the procedure was "common practice in almost all drug hotspots in Germany" at the time. In addition, there is already a memorial in Hamburg.

The Greens also reject the application because it contains "factual errors". AfD MP Dirk Nockemann calls the whole debate "intolerable" - after all, the dead man was "a foreign dealer" and he couldn't see "torture" in the earlier practice. In the following vote, only the left parliamentary group voted for its own motion.

01/05/2022 11:31 am

Editor's note:An earlier version of the article stated that the Federal Constitutional Court overturned a 1999 ban on the use of forced emetics. However, it is correct that the court at that time only did not accept a constitutional complaint for procedural reasons and also formulated that the use of emetics with regard to human dignity and freedom from self-incrimination did not encounter any fundamental constitutional concerns. However, the court later clarified that this wording says nothing about the extent to which forced administration is permissible with regard to the protection of physical integrity and the proportionality of the intervention. We have changed the relevant passage in the article and, for reasons of clarity, have dispensed with the reference to the decision of the Federal Constitutional Court.