Three doctors working in East Flanders province have been ordered by a committal hearing to stand trial at the assizes court for offences against the euthanasia law. The decision to send a case to assizes, where the evidence is heard by a jury, is becoming increasingly rare in Belgium, because of the complicated procedure and the high cost. Juries decide the question of guilt or innocence by themselves, and later sit with the court’s chief judge to determine sentence, in the case of a guilty finding.
The case concerns a 38-year-old woman, Tine Neys, who was euthanised in April 2010 at her request, as she suffered from psychological problems.
According to the patient’s family, Neys was not ill enough to meet the requirements of the euthanasia law as it was at that time. In addition, the procedure was carried out in an “amateurish” fashion, relatives said. A sister of the dead woman made a complaint, and the circumstances of the case were investigated by the Ghent prosecutor’s office.
The committal hearing found there was enough primafacie evidence of wrong-doing to send the case to trial. The three doctors – two physicians and a psychiatrist – have not been detained. This is the first trial to take place since euthanasia was made legal under strict limits in 2002.
According to the family, Neys had a psychiatric past, but at the time of her request for euthanasia had not been in an institution for 15 years. She had, however, experienced a recent break in a relationship.
Meanwhile Jean-Jacques De Gucht, euthanasia specialist in parliament for Open VLD, warned that such cases – whether the doctors are found guilty or not – attacked the very foundations of Belgium’s “very good” euthanasia law by calling its protections into question.
Speaking on the VRT’s Terzake programme, Wim Distelmans, chair of the euthanasia evaluation committee, explained what those conditions are.
“The patient must be competent to decide, and must voluntarily, continually and repeatedly have requested euthanasia,” he said. “The patient must be suffering from an incurable physical or mental condition which causes intolerable suffering.”
According to the evaluation committee, those conditions were all met in the case of Tine Neys.