Monday, January 5, 2015

Belgian Court Approves Killer's Request for Euthanasia over Life without Parole

by Nomad

After 30 years in prison in Belgium, Frank Van Den Bleeken will take his own life with the blessing of the court. The unusual use of the euthanasia laws has opened up a lot of important questions, such as the purpose of incarceration without parole.

The case of Frank Van Den Bleeken has not attracted too much attention in the American press. The serial killer and rapist has spent that last 30 years of his life behind bars in Belgium. In September, Bleeken applied for and won permission by the state to be euthanized

This unusual application of the 2002 euthanasia laws was based on the convict's claim that his incarceration constituted “unbearable” psychological suffering. 

Three decades ago, Van Den Bleeken was convicted of a series of rapes and the rape and murder of a teenage girl including the assault on an 11 year old girl. In a documentary, he told Belgian TV
"I am danger to society. What am I supposed to do? What’s the point in sitting here until the end of time and rotting away? I’d rather be euthanized."
  He went on to say:
“If people commit a sexual crime, help them deal with it. Just locking them up helps no one: not the person, not society and not the victims. I am a human being, and regardless of what I’ve done, I remain a human being. So yes, give me euthanasia.”
End of the Fight
The court decision to grant Van Den Bleeken's wish marks the end a long battle which began in 2011 when the prisoner made his first request. He alleged that he had been denied psychiatric help and was suffering unbearably.
At that time, his plea was rejected by the Federal Euthanasia Commission on the grounds that every possible treatment had to be considered first. 

Early last year, Van Den Bleeken's request for a transfer to a specialist therapy unit in the Netherlands was denied by the authorities. In fact, a new center was scheduled to be opened in Belgium.
Incidentally, the "deplorable" state of prisons in Belgium was highlighted in European Court of Human Rights case (Vasilescu v. Belgium). Problems mentioned were a general overcrowding, the lack of toilet facilities and running water inside the prison cells and other conditions that were considered inhuman and ‘medieval.’

Late last year, the committee agreed to his request but gave no specific time for the act to be carried out. Last week the date was firmly set for January 11. 
Until that date, Van Den Bleeken waits at his secure unit in Bruges, along with 150 other prisoners. He has spent much time in isolation or in his cell for up to 23 hours a day. 
Ironically, as one reporter pointed out, since applying for euthanasia he has also been on suicide watch.

Dignity and the Peaceful Death 
Euthanasia campaigner Philip Nitschke applauded the court's approval. He told the Australian press:
"When I first heard that the prisoner was going to be allowed to have his request to have a peaceful death respected, I was very pleased in the sense that it was something that I've believed for some time – that a person who is incarcerated for an indefinite period and that's certainly his case [should be able to have the option of euthanasia]"
Nitschke added:
"It looks to me like the state is not only prepared to incarcerate people forever in certain circumstances, but to try and maximize the suffering of those individuals, and I don't think we should have any part of that, at least in these situations, offer these poor people the option of a peaceful death.
Not everybody shared those sentiments. Professor Wim Distelmans, chairman of the Belgian Board of Control for Euthanasia, adamantly opposed the court's decision. 
“It is wrong to allow him to end his life like this.”
Other commentators on the case have scoffed at Van Den Bleeken's plea to die with dignity. An article in the tabloid The Mirror pointed out that allowing Bleeken to die by his own request is paramount to allowing him to escape justice.
All dignity was denied to Christiane Remacle, the 19-year-old New Year reveller he beat, raped then strangled with her own stocking in an Antwerp forest in 1989.
And there can be no end to the suffering of her elder sisters, Annie and Liliane – whose mother Mary never recovered and died of a broken heart.
Incarceration might seem “unbearable” to the convicted killer but where is justice without some form of punishment?
Where is the actual judicial imperative to "offer these poor people the option of a peaceful death"?

The Purpose of Imprisonment
The Van Den Bleeken case opens up other social questions outside of the euthanasia debate. Is all incarceration without the hope of parole a form of cruel and inhumane treatment? That would require a hard look at the entire justice system. When there is no expectation or possibility for rehabilitation, what then is the point of incarceration?
The punishment of the criminal or the protection of society? 

Purely from a practical standpoint, the sooner the state is relieved of the financial burden of holding a man in custody, the better. It's an ugly way of looking at it, it's true. But consider that in the US, the average cost for a single year of imprisonment for one person is $22,000. If Van Den Bleeken had been serving his time in the US instead of Belgium, he would have already cost the state well over a half a million dollars. 
That's only one prisoner.
According to one source, all told, there are presently 159,520 offenders are serving life sentences in America, 49,081 of them without the possibility of parole. How many of those people would opt for euthanasia is not clear and nobody is talking about bringing that degree of "mercy" to US prisoners.

With those figures, the state could be under pressure to offer inmates more flexibility to choose euthanasia. That in turn could give prison less incentive to improve the quality of life for inmates.
  
Euthanasia and Capital Punishment
Even before this case, some observers have expressed concerns that Belgium's legalization of euthanasia. AS one source notes:
When Belgium legalized euthanasia, there were assurances that it would be tightly controlled and limited to exceptional cases. But the number of cases rises every year – reaching nearly 2% of total deaths last year — and the definition of what is acceptable is expanding.
Studies show that there was a 27 per cent surge in the number of cases last year. In 2013, 1807 so-called mercy killings were carried out in Belgium. Doctors in Belgium are killing an average of five people every day by euthanasia. Of that number, 67 of the cases were based on psychological reasons. 
(Controversially, Belgium also became the first and so far only country that allows doctors to assist in the deaths of terminally ill children.)

Nevertheless, the terms for euthanasia in Belgium are quite strict: patients must be mentally capable, conscious, and have demonstrated a "voluntary, considered and repeated" demand to die. According to the law, the patient's decision must be free of "any external influences." 
They must also prove to a panel of medical experts that they are “in a medically futile condition of constant and unbearable physical or mental suffering that can not be alleviated, resulting from a serious and incurable disorder caused by illness or accident”.
Before the court, Jos Vander Velpen, Van Den Bleeken’s lawyer, argued that
“Over recent years he has been seen by several doctors and psychologists and their conclusion is that he is suffering unbearably.”
Despite having no terminal illness, the courts have decided, based on psychological suffering alone. that Van Den Bleeken is qualifies for the right to euthanasia.

Presently, only the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg have legalized euthanasia.  However, assisted suicide - in which lethal drugs are self-administered under the supervision of a physican- is legal in SwitzerlandGermany, AlbaniaColombiaJapan and in the states of WashingtonOregonVermont, New Mexico  and Montana.

At the same time, capital punishment is strictly prohibited for European Union members. The European Union holds "a strong and principled position against the death penalty" as a violation of human rights.   
The death penalty is cruel and inhuman, and has not been shown in any way to act as a deterrent to crime. The European Union regards abolition as essential for the protection of human dignity, as well as for the progressive development of human rights.
In just another irony, the EU courts are now facing the question: which is more cruel, the state putting a convicted criminal to death or keeping him alive? 

Quality of Life
But then , there are plenty of unresolved issues in this matter. Human rights groups warn that approving of euthanasia for prisoners- voluntary or not- amounts to a back door to capital punishment. After all, when a person is under custody, how can the state ensure the decision is actually free of external outside influences? 

Others rightly claim that the euthanasia laws were never intended to be used in this way. They were supposed to be used to a gesture of mercy to sick and dying. 

As the UK Guardian points out, under the Belgian model, physical or psychological suffering that is incurable or constant can be the grounds for voluntary euthanasia. The debates have in the past been confined to terminal illnesses. 
However, with the Bleeken decision, the debate shifts to the quality of life in a broader sense. 
That's a very important distinction and very dangerous territory. 
Imagine the same argument by a drug addict or an alcoholic, or even the poor who request the right to die. Where does it stop when it comes to quality of life?

Here's a real-life example.
In 2012, sixty-four year old Godelieva De Troyer was euthanized based solely of her severe depression. Her family said her health was otherwise perfect. Her son, Tom Mortier, a university lecturer, only learned of his mother's death when a morgue called him at work asking what he wanted done with his mother's remains.
Although she had mentioned her interest in euthanasia, her son has said, he never dreamed her request would be granted. Today he has become a critic of the government's policy calling it, "suicide with the approval of society.”
Some people in Belgium are wondering if it isn't time for a re-think.

*   *   *  
In little over a week Frank Van Den Bleeken will end his incarceration- the easy way- but the controversy his request sparked will not die with him.  At least 15 similar requests for euthanasia from other inmates have been lodged with the Belgium courts.

Update (January 7, 2015)
It seems that the decision to allow Van Den Bleeken his euthanasia has been reversed. Here's the report, courtesy of VICE.
Convicted Belgian serial rapist and murderer Frank Van Den Bleeken was set to be euthanized on January 11, after his request for assisted suicide was approved by Belgium's Federal Euthanasia Commission last September. The Flemish newspaper De Morgenreported Sunday that doctors in the northwestern city of Bruges would euthanize the 52-year-old.
But plans changed on Tuesday, when Belgian Justice Minister Koen Geens announced that the doctors tasked with the euthanasia had reversed their decision and would not "go ahead with the procedure." The minister did not explain the reason behind the decision, saying only that "personal reasons for the decision fall under medical confidentiality.

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