STRASBOURG, France, Jan 23 (Reuters) - The European Court of Human Rights said on Wednesday it would rush through an application for a hearing from a terminally ill Briton who wants to commit suicide with her husband's help.
Diane Pretty, a 43-year-old mother of two who is paralysed from the neck down from motor neurone disease, is physically incapable of taking her own life.
She took her case to Europe after losing an appeal to Britain's highest court in November for a guarantee that her husband Brian will not be prosecuted if he helps her die.
Suicide is not a crime in Britain, but helping someone take their life is an offence under the 1961 Suicide Act and carries a maximum 14-year jail term.
The Court of Human Rights, based in Strasbourg in eastern France, said it registered Pretty's application on Friday and decided on Tuesday to treat it as a matter of urgency, given the circumstances.
"The court must decide whether the UK government has failed in its duties under European human rights law," said Lawyer Shami Chakrabarti of the human rights group Liberty, who is acting for the Prettys. "We argue that they have, in failing to provide a legal mechanism to help people in Mrs. Pretty's exceptional position to exercise their freedom of choice and personal autonomy."
About 20,000 applications for hearings are pending before the court, which usually takes 6 months to consider the admissibility of a case. If a case is deemed admissible, a ruling can sometimes take up to 4 years.
Roderick Liddell, a spokesman for the court, said Pretty's application would go "right to the top of the pile."
He said the court had written to the British government asking it to respond to Pretty's application within 4 weeks and would then consider whether it is admissible.
"If the court decides to hold a hearing they would do so in early March," Liddell said.
Pretty, from Bedfordshire, has taken her case to Strasbourg under five articles of the European Convention on Human Rights, including the right to life and the right to respect for private and family life.
The European Court said in a statement Pretty's life expectancy was poor but that her intellect and capacity to make decisions were unimpaired.
"Given that the final stages of the disease are distressing and undignified, she wishes to be able to control how and when she dies and be spared that suffering and indignity," it said.
In the November hearing, five members of the House of Lords, Britain's upper chamber of parliament and the country's highest court, rejected Pretty's final appeal under domestic law.
They determined the Director of Public Prosecutions had no power to rule out a prosecution of her husband in advance and that her human rights were not being infringed.
"I have fought this disease every step. If I am allowed to decide when and how I die, I will feel that I have wrested some autonomy back," Pretty said before the law lords' decision.
The Pretty case has sharpened debate in Britain over euthanasia and assisted suicide.
The Netherlands last April became the first country to make euthanasia legal. Its law sets strict rules on the conditions for assisted suicide, including that adult patients must make a voluntary request to die and face a future of unbearable suffering in order to be allowed to end their life.
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