In 1989, Frank Van Den Bleeken raped and killed Christiane Remacle, a 19-year old student near Antwerp, in Belgium. Belgium abolished the death penalty in 1996 and the last execution took place in 1918. Bleeken was sentenced to life imprisonment and to date, has spent 30 years behind bars. Being locked-up and dealing with severe psychological distress without benefiting from adequate medical assistance had become unbearable to Bleeken. He thus asked to be euthanized. His main argument was that he was a ‘human being’ and deserved not to suffer any longer. In September 2014, the Belgium’s Federal Euthanasia Commission approved his request. This would have been the first assisted suicide of an incarcerated prison.

On Sunday 11th January 2015, Bleeken was to be euthanized by professional doctors. There was also meant to be a priest and a lawyer present. Today, five days before the euthanasia was to take place, the Belgian Minister of Justice, Koen Geens, announced that the procedure was suspended as the doctors no longer wanted to be involved.

The case raises a number of questions, one of them being: has Belgium come close to reintroducing a form of death penalty? We generally associate capital punishment with the United States, Iran, Pakistan, Japan, China or Indonesia, but not with European states. In Professors Carolyn Hoyle and Roger Hood's recent re-edition of The Death Penalty: A Worldwide Perspective (2015) the scholars remind us how member states have, one after the other, abolished their capital sentencing laws. The death penalty, at least in the format it bore until the mid 20th century, no longer exists in the UK, France or Belgium. By accepting the request to be euthanized, has Belgium not quietly reintroduced another form of death penalty, one that insidiously transfers the responsibility of death from the state onto the prisoner?

The state presents the case as if bearing no responsibility with the killing. It is a wilful decision taken by an individual, state officials claim. Justice Ministry stated that for the euthanasia to be accepted, Bleeken had to be ‘conscious’ and present a ‘voluntary, considered and repeated’ request to die. The commission found that these requirements had been met.

Individuals who, under the 2002 Belgium euthanasia law, generally ask for assisted-suicide are not held behind prison bars. The extent to which it can be contended that after 30 years in prison, of ‘unbearable psychological suffering”, one can make a ‘voluntary, considered and repeated’ request to die is highly doubtful (Finck 2014).

Is not of the main causes of Bleeken’s suffering, the exacerbation of his psychological distress and desire to die, imprisonment and lack of health care? Is not the punishment the very source of his desire to be killed? In which case, how can the state not be held responsible for the decision of being euthanized? Is the real decision-maker of Bleeken’s killing not the state itself – in the guise of the euthanasia commission - rather than the prisoner? And how does this not amount to a form of state-imposed killing?

Another element supporting the claim that Belgium has come very close to reintroducing a new form of death penalty is the doctors’ reactions. When proceeding with a ‘classic’ case of euthanasia, doctors do not feel conflicted; they proceed without violating their Hippocratic Oath.

However in Bleeken’s case they decided not to go through with the procedure. Their reasons have not yet been made public but it could be presumed that the medical professionals felt that euthanizing a prisoner was different.

An article published on the Express website further points to the reaction of the victim’s family. For them, being euthanized was perceived as an easy way out. Bleeken should instead be ‘rotting’ in jail until he dies. This challenges another general assumption: a death sentence, i.e. where the state actively circumvents the natural life of an individual, is worse than being sentenced to life in prison, which also often involves death but at the end of one’s ‘natural life’ but without the active role of the state (nb: although this could be contested). 

What if life in prison was actually worse than state-imposed killing? If this is the case, European states should perhaps be a bit more cautious when criticising the United States for withholding the death penalty. Not that capital punishment is not a horrific, cruel and inhumane form of punishment but more because they may have replaced death sentences with an equally cruel and degrading punishment: life in prison.

References:

Finck M (2014) Should Prisoners have the right to assisted suicide? http://www.iconnectblog.com/2014/11/should-prisoners-have-the-right-to-assisted-suicide

Hood R and Hoyle C (2015) The Death Penalty: A Worldwide Perspective.