April 20, 2024

Belgium grants prisoner’s request for euthanasia

A decision which raises many questions.

Frank Van Den Bleeken  

A man serving a life sentence for rape and murder has been allowed by a Belgian court to undergo euthanasia. Claiming that he is unable to control his violent sexual urges, Frank Van Den Bleeken, who is 50, wants to die. He says that he is suffering “unbearable psychological anguish”. “He has clearly said that he didn’t want to leave prison because he didn’t want to risk creating further victims,” his lawyer told AP.

Van Den Bleeken has been battling for permission in the courts for three years. This decision will make him the first prisoner to be euthanased since it became legal in 2002. He will be transferred to a hospital where the medical procedure will take place. The exact date is yet to be determined. Since applying for euthanasia prison authorities have placed him on suicide watch.

Van Den Bleeken’s case has raised a number of issues.

Is he terminally ill? Clearly not. However, he does claim to be suffering unbearable anguish, which is grounds for euthanasia in Belgium.

Can he be cured? We don’t know because the Belgian government has effectively refused to treat him. Belgium has been repeatedly condemned by the European Court of Human Rights because it cannot offer high-risk sex offenders humane care.

He had requested a transfer to a specialised psychiatric centre in neighbouring Netherlands but Belgian authorities denied the transfer request earlier this year. After that Van Den Bleeken requested euthanasia. Even Belgium’s leading figure in euthanasia, Dr Wim Distlemans feels a bit queasy about this. He said: “Surely, we are not going to carry out euthanasia because we can’t offer an alternative?”

Should he be allowed to “escape” a life sentence? “I’m a danger to society,” he told state broadcaster VRT in a documentary earlier this year. “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 euthanised.” However, the sisters of one of his victims, whom he raped and killed while on parole, insist that justice demands that he “rot” in jail. “We hear his lawyers say on the radio how much their client suffers. Well, we’re suffering too! It’s always the same!’,” one of them said.

Is Belgium still opposed to the death penalty which it abolished in 1996? The Van Den Bleeken case muddles the meaning of capital punishment. Is he being killed because he made his victims suffer or because his victims are making him suffer?

Will this change the meaning of imprisonment? The Belgian media has reported that 15 other prisoners have already requested euthanasia. Some euthanasia supporters will welcome this development. Australian activist Dr Philip Nitschke mooted voluntary euthanasia as “the last frontier in prison reform” in his 2005 book Killing Me Softly. Why should jails try to prevent prisoners from committing suicide, if they can request to be killed?

Can any prisoner’s request for euthanasia truly be voluntary? If Belgium refused to provide Van Den Bleeken with the psychiatric help he needs to overcome his urges, can his desperate plea be deemed “voluntary [and] well-considered” and “not the result of any external pressure”, as the euthanasia law stipulates?

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