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Swiss Investigating UK Couple's Death at Suicide Clinic

Apr 15, 2003
By Clare Chapman
Reuters Health

Swiss authorities investigating the case of a British couple who killed themselves at a controversial suicide clinic in Switzerland say it is not yet possible to comment on whether their conditions were terminal.

Zurich district attorney Edwin Luescher, who is looking into the case, told Reuters Health: "Jennifer Stokes was wheelchair bound. Her husband, Robert, was also physically ill and could hardly move. He also had a severe form of epilepsy."

The couple ended their lives within minutes of each other in a flat in Zurich. Both swallowed a cocktail of sodium barbital mixed by a doctor from the Dignitas group.

Luescher added that it was routine for investigations to be made into assisted suicides to ensure that no foul play was involved. "It is our job to make sure that the lethal drugs were administered at the wish of the patient and not for the benefit of those administering them," he said.

Assisted suicide is legal for foreign visitors as well as Swiss citizens, provided it can be shown that helping a terminally ill person to die is a humane act. "Euthanasia in Switzerland is only legal if the organisation or doctors helping the patient is doing so for selfless reasons and not for money or revenge, for example," Luescher added.

He said it was not the job of prosecutors to decide if the patient was terminally ill. "That decision is left to the doctors, whom we have to trust."

Police in the couple's home town of Leighton Buzzard in England have received documents from the Swiss authorities in German relating to the couple's death and say they need to translate them before an enquiry can start. The couple's bodies have also arrived back in England and toxicology reports have been ordered to determine the cause of death.

The district attorney is a well-known and vocal opponent of what has been dubbed "suicide tourism" in the popular press. He said he believed that the Dignitas group and others like it gave the impression that Switzerland promoted the activity.

Dignitas would not comment on the case on Tuesday when contacted by Reuters Health.

© 2003 Reuters Ltd