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Despite Initial Approval, Belgian Prisoner Denied Euthanasia

Belgian prisoner Frank Van Den Bleeken, who in 1989 raped and killed Christiane Remacle, a student from Antwerp, was sentenced to life and has spent over 30 years in prison. Most European countries, unlike the United States, have abolished the death penalty. Belgium did so in 1996, though the last execution carried out in that nation was in 1950.

Under Belgium’s liberal euthanasia laws, individuals can ask doctors to terminate their lives if a panel of medical officials concurs they are facing severe physical or mental suffering. People seeking euthanasia must be mentally competent and have a “voluntary, considered and repeated” desire to die.

In 2011, Van Den Bleeken, who considered himself a “danger to society” and despaired that he would never be rehabilitated and would remain in prison, “sitting here until the end of time and rotting away...,” sought to die through euthanasia.

A board in charge of reviewing such requests began working on Van Den Bleeken’s case and ordered him to undergo psychological treatment prior to being put to death. He contended that he was suffering from a mental condition that could not be cured, because he would never be released from prison. His request was finally granted and he was scheduled to die on January 11, 2015.

The approval was not without controversy. Dr. Stefaan Van Gool, with the University of Leuven, said he did not believe all the legal requirements for the procedure had been met as there was still a possibility for further treatment for Van Den Bleeken.

However, the issue was mooted by the fact that no medical professional in the country was willing to carry out the planned euthanasia, and five days before the scheduled date, Belgium’s Minister of Justice, Koen Geens, suspended the procedure. Instead, Van Den Bleeken was moved to a psychiatric facility pending a possible transfer to a treatment center in the Netherlands.

According to Dr. Wim Distelmans, a physician who has advocated in support of Belgium’s euthanasia laws, fifteen other prisoners have sought information about ending their lives. None have completed the review process and been put to death, though.

Van Den Bleeken’s case raised several interesting questions, including not only the humanity of life sentences but also whether life in prison is even more cruel and degrading than the death penalty. It also raised concerns as to whether European nations that have banned capital punishment are actually inflicting more suffering on prisoners, to the extent they seek euthanasia.

The sisters of Van Den Bleeken’s victim had opposed his request to die, reportedly saying he should “rot in his cell.”


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