BRUSSELS - A Belgian man convicted of murder and rape is being put to death. Yet the country doesn’t have the death penalty. Confused? Authorities have granted a request for assisted suicide by the man, who says he’s a menace to society and can’t live knowing that.
Even in Belgium, which has one of the broadest euthanasia laws in the world, the decision is raising eyebrows, with some saying it’s proof of a failing justice and health system.
Belgium’s justice minister approved Frank Van Den Bleeken’s transfer to a hospital for euthanasia late Monday after doctors agreed his mental condition was incurable, making him the first detainee in Belgium to be put to death for psychiatric reasons.
Van Den Bleeken, who was found guilty of murder and rape in several cases, has been locked up for almost 30 years. He wishes to die because he has no viable treatment options left and cannot control his sexual urges, his lawyer said Tuesday.
“He has clearly said that he didn’t want to leave prison because he didn’t want to risk creating further victims,” Jos Vander Velpen said. Seeing himself as a danger to society, he can “no longer live like that,” the lawyer added.
He declined to elaborate on his client’s psychiatric condition or to discuss when the medically assisted suicide would take place, citing his client’s right to privacy.
The sisters of one of Van Den Bleeken’s victims, a woman he raped and killed while being temporarily out of prison in 1989, seemed appalled by the decision.
“Let him rot in his cell,” the sisters, referred to as only Annie and Liliane, were quoted by Dutch daily Algemeen Dagblad as saying.
“All those commissions, doctors and experts concerned about the well-being of the murderer of our sister. Nobody has ever shown us that much attention,” they said.
Belgium has allowed euthanasia since 2002 for the terminally ill, but the vast majority of cases involve physical illnesses.
Carine Brochier, a project manager with the Brussels-based European Institute of Bioethics, said Van Den Bleeken should not be allowed to die but receive proper treatment as would be the case in all other countries.
“This is a great failure of psychiatric care and the prison system in Belgium altogether,” said Brochier, who opposes euthanasia. The decision amounts to a “death penalty through the backdoor,” she said.
“And now this will set off a race of other convicts seeking to die,” she warned.
Van Den Bleeken, now in his 50s, had requested a transfer for treatment at a specialized psychiatric center in the Netherlands or, failing that, a mercy killing. Belgian authorities denied the transfer request earlier this year, saying it was legally impossible to transfer him abroad. On Monday, a Brussels appeals court then accepted an agreement to carry out the assisted suicide.
Proponents of euthanasia supported the decision but acknowledged that Van Den Bleeken’s case is complicated because he isn’t suffering from a physical illness, which makes it harder to prove that his condition is incurable.
“The position that we have regarding a patient, detained or not, with a cancer is totally different from the position we have regarding what we can’t see, meaning a psychiatric disorder,” said Jacqueline Herremans, the president of Belgium’s right to die association.
However, since psychiatrists following him for years have concluded that his mental condition is incurable and he could therefore never be set free, it was right to grant his euthanasia request despite his despicable crimes committed long ago, she said.
“Regardless, he’s a human being; a human being who has the right to demand euthanasia,” said Herremans, who also sits on Belgium’s government-appointed euthanasia commission.
Euthanasia requests in Belgium have been rising over the past years, soaring from 1,400 in 2012 to 1,800 last year. The majority of patients requesting it suffer from cancer; but 67 requests citing psychological disorders were also accepted last year, according to a government report. They included patients with Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, dementia and psychosis, the report said.
While euthanasia for the terminally ill is widely accepted in Belgium, a decision in February by Belgian lawmakers to extend the euthanasia law to terminally ill children stirred some controversy.
The law empowers children with terminal ailments who are in great pain to ask to be put to death if their parents agree and a psychiatrist or psychologist certifies they are conscious of what their choice signifies.