Steven Pans, the father of the 14-year-old Eline murdered by her mother, has issued a heartfelt and angry open letter after his daughter’s killer, his estranged wife Mehrnaz Didgar, walked away from a guilty verdict with only a five-year suspended sentence. Didgar was sentenced on Thursday, after the prosecution had demanded a relatively light 26 years – the normal tariff for premeditated murder is life imprisonment – and left Hasselt prison on Friday morning.
In his letter, Pans writes, “The verdict came down: guilty of intentional homicide with malice aforethought. But the sentence at the end sounded, to my ears, as ‘Let her go. She has served 22 months in prison already, and that is enough’.”
Didgar had been in prison in Hasselt on remand, and indeed her sentence came as a shock, not only because she had freely admitted guilt in killing her own daughter with a plastic bag over her head, but the sentence decided by the jury was exactly that requested by defence lawyer Jef Vermassen during the sentencing hearing.
“Cutting off a defenceless, vulnerable person’s breath for 15 minutes, the whole thing prepared with premeditation, was not enough reason to keep someone in prison for longer,” he writes. “I would not wish to be a child in this society.”
And in contrast to the lenient sentence for the killer, he concludes “the toughest punishment, a life sentence, for the father, the family and friends.”
Attorney Vermassen, meanwhile, adds the remarkable result to his impressive record of arguing before a criminal court, and in particular a jury. He showed little sympathy, however, for the father’s cri de cœur. Speaking on VTM news, he told the dead girl’s family to mind their own business.
“The first phase [of the trial] is concerned with the question of guilt. Then the civil parties have their say. The guilt is then declared, they may be involved in ascertaining guilt, according to the law”. Afterwards, however, the matter of sentencing is for the jury and the court. “The civil party ought then to remain silent.”
Meanwhile Didgar has left prison to remain free, on condition she undergo psychological counselling. She has expressed a wish to leave Belgium and go to the developing world to work with an aid agency which has some use for her training as a doctor – she was a respected neurosurgeon at the university hospital in Leuven, and in fact counted Jef Vermassen among her patients.
But, asked Het Nieuwsblad, can a convicted murderer still practice as a doctor? “First, the Order of Physicians has to pronounce,” the paper quotes the deputy president of the order, Michel Deneyer. The court automatically sends its verdict to the regional office of the order, which then considers the gravity of the case and whether it tends to damage the reputation of the profession. They may decide to strike Didgar off the register, or they may not. In either case she will be informed, but the decision will not be made public. The order’s verdict is then sent to corresponding professional bodies in other EU member states.