Where does Belgium’s legalisation of euthanasia leave Belgian prison inmates?

This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
Where does Belgium’s legalisation of euthanasia leave Belgian prison inmates?

Not so long ago, Farid Bamouhammad considered assisted suicide because of the desperation he felt at the prospect of a life behind bars. It is understood that any application he may have made for euthanasia had little chance of success because it would not meet the conditions required by the Euthanasia Law in Belgium.

Even so, it is known that 15 other Belgian prisoners have demanded euthanasia on similar grounds.

Belgium legalised euthanasia in 2002, and is one of only three countries to allow the practice, the others being the Netherlands and Luxembourg.

Only the Dutch currently allow euthanasia to be administered to children. More countries, including Switzerland and some states of America, allow doctors to assist suicide in certain circumstances.

Belgium, in fact, has seen a fast growth in the number of cases of euthanasia, and has expanded the practice beyond terminally ill adults.

It can now be used in cases of intense pain and psychological distress, while last February the right to euthanasia was extended to terminally ill children, as long as their parents gave consent.

In 2013, the last year for which full records have been published, the number of euthanasia cases in Belgium rose to 1,807, up 27 per cent on the year before.

More than a third of euthanasia cases are in those under 60, and although the vast majority of approvals are given to those in unrelievable physical pain or terminally ill, 67 cases last year cited psychological grounds, including dementia and psychosis.

Figures show that 42 Dutch psychiatric patients were helped to die last year, a "marked increase" from 14 cases in 2012 that has raised concerns over the extension of "mercy killings" to people who might not be able to fully consent.

One previous prison inmate has been euthanased in Belgium but he was suffering a terminal illness.

Earlier this year, Frank Van den Bleeken, the Belgian serial rapist and murderer, was expected to be granted his wish to die by a medical euthanasia procedure in the infirmary of Bruges prison but, in the end, was not killed after doctors pulled out of the euthanasia procedure on legal grounds.

Ven den Bleeken argued that he had no prospect of ever being released from prison as he cannot overcome his uncontrollable sexual impulses, and that he does not wish another two or three decades in jail.

Professor Wim Distelmans, a Belgian cancer specialist and prominent advocate of euthanasia, pulled out of the lethal injection procedure because of the possibility of Dutch psychiatric treatment for van den Bleeken.

Together with the demand by Van den Bleeken, the controversial case of Belgian convicted gangster Farid Bamouhammad has reopened the highly sensitive and emotive debate in Belgium about assisted suicide.

Bamouhammad is the enfant terrible of the Belgian prisons' system and seems to cause difficulties everywhere he comes.

The prisoner, who received his nickname Farid le Fou or Farid the Nut as a result of his unmanageable behaviour, has been in jail since 1985.

A protracted spell in isolation and a subsequent 55 day hunger strike left him feeling so desperate that he seriously considering applying for euthanasia.

At the time he reportedly told the Belgian media, "All this time I have lived in darkness, in hell, because that is what it means to be in jail. I would not wish anybody to experience what has been inflicted on me. I prefer to die."

Irrespective of the prospects of such a bid being successful, he is now a free man, at least for the time being.

According to his lawyer Marc Neve, the man with the most fearsome reputation in the Belgian legal system wants to present himself as a "changed man" who is set on putting a life of crime behind him.

In an exclusive interview with The Brussels Times, the Liege-based lawyer, Marc Neve said that since his release from prison last November on medical grounds, Bamouhammad  has sought to take the first tentative steps towards rebuilding a life, most of which has, thus far, been spent behind bars.

Neve said, "Bamouhammad is full of remorse for what he has done and just wants to put it all behind him."

Bamouhammad is a Franco-Algerian. He was sentenced to 13 years in jail in 1997 for murder and attempted murdered. He was released in 1999 awaiting his extradition to France. In 2000 he held his in-laws hostage in Drogenbos (Flemish Brabant) and was sentence to 5 years imprisonment.

In 2005 he again hit the news headlines when he kidnaped his daughter for a while when he had been let out of jail for a few days in order to prepare him for life on the outside. For this he was sentenced to 10 years in 2007.

It was around this time that he was put in isolation, an experience which, according to his lawyer left him at the lowest point of his life.

The means of expressing his anger was a hunger strike that ended only on 30 November. "It was the absence of any contact with any human being that got to him," said Neve.

So bad was it that Bamouhammad thought of euthanasia as a way out, a consideration he has now however shelved.

"He made certain comments to the media about euthanasia but that was mostly out of sheer desperation and this is not now in his thoughts," said Neve.

His current sentence actually runs until 2027 but he was freed several months ago on medical grounds (physical and mental).

Subject to several conditions, he is generally free to go where and do what he wants (although he cannot leave Belgium) and is currently living "somewhere in Wallonia."

His lawyer said that Bamouhammad has now been reunited with his family, including his estranged wife and daughter, the same daughter he once kidnapped.

"They visited him last year when he was still in prison and he has renewed his contact with them now that he is out. The new contact between the three is going very well and without any difficulties," said Neve.

He said his client "feels remorse" for his criminal past. "The court has taken responsible action. My client has been treated in a miserable fashion for years and was a broken man”.

On one occasion Bamouhammad was awarded 11,000 euro in compensation for the “inhumane” treatment he suffered at Ittre Prison in Walloon Brabant.

The two highly media covered cases of Farid Bamouhammad and Van den Bleeken, put the Belgian euthanasia legislation on the spotlight worldwide. Besides raising several moral and ethical questions, it also puts focus on the very function of our prison system and punishment.

For one, under the new Belgian legislation, the right for assisted suicide has become less strict to include mental anguish, intense physical or mental distress deemed unfixable, in addition to terminal illnesses. Although it is still a grey zone and a matter of psychological pathology or semantics, the number of applications has risen considerably.

In Bamouhammad’s case, the consideration to apply for euthanasia followed the period of solitary isolation. For other inmates who have been given sentences that will never see them getting out of prison, the very nature of their punishment and prospect of spending the rest of their lives in prison, may give rise to mental anguish. Should they have the right to apply for euthanasia as free citizens in such cases? If so, are they then simply evading justice through death? And is it even their own choice or has it been forced upon them due to their punishment and subsequent psychological distress?

Undoubtedly, more cases will eventually make the headlines so thought and consideration must be given to how to tackle the new legislation and where it leaves Belgian prison inmates.

By Martin Banks

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