Euthanasia expert trapped

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WHEN Hans Henning Atrott turned up at the Ibis Hotel in Hamburg this week for a 'meeting' with a woman who had asked to see him urgently, he expected it would be a simple case of business as usual.

The two met, for the first time, in the hotel's conference room. There the woman, in her mid-forties, explained that she had had an affair with an Aids sufferer and that, rather than face years of pain, she wanted to commit suicide. Mr Atrott understood perfectly and, within five minutes, handed her a cyanide capsule in return for 3,000 marks ( pounds 1,250).

Unbeknown to Mr Atrott, president of the largest euthanasia society in Germany, the whole thing was a set-up. As soon as he stepped out of the conference room, he was arrested. 'He walked into the trap perfectly,' said Constanze Elsner, a journalist specialising in the subject of suicide who, together with police investigators, arranged the hoax meeting. 'Mr Atrott is normally a very careful man, but for once his greed overcame his caution.'

At the point of his arrest on Monday Mr Atrott continued to deny he was selling cyanide, despite being caught red-handed. The Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Humanes Sterben (DGHS, German Society for Humane Dying) he heads has subsequently also denied making profits from people wanting to take their own lives.

Prosecutors in Augsburg, the headquarters of the society, now intend to charge Mr Atrott with the illegal sale of lethal poison. In addition, they are investigating a further 87 sales of cyanide to would-be suicides and preparing charges in connection with tax evasion over several years.

Whatever the outcome of the Atrott case, it has already stirred fierce controversy in Germany, where the subject of euthanasia is still, given the country's Nazi past, a very delicate matter - the word itself is not even used here.

Under German law, attempting to commit suicide is not an offence; nor, therefore, is helping somebody to do so. Indeed, when Mr Atrott set up the DGHS in 1980 he quickly won widespread support from a public generally in favour of the idea that people who were incurably ill or crippled should be allowed to take their own lives.

But although advising people on how to commit suicide is not illegal, selling them cyanide - particularly at vastly inflated prices - is. And in the past few years, Mr Atrott has been increasingly accused of such sales, sometimes to mentally ill people.

According to Manfred Hudalla, a senior police investigator, the DGHS president has made 'millions of marks' through selling cyanide and has stashed the money away in foreign bank accounts. But attempts to press charges have been consistently frustrated - largely because nearly all of those who might have been able to testify against Mr Atrott had already killed themselves.

The arrest following the Hamburg 'sting' came as a great relief and personal truimph to Ms Elsner, who herself tried to commit suicide in 1970 at the age of 21 and has consistently campaigned against the DGHS.

Ms Elsner contends that the suicide methods advocated by Mr Atrott, which include taking sleeping tablets and drowning, far from resulting in a 'dignified' death, usually lead to a gruesome and painful end.

In addition to seeing Mr Atrott brought to justice, Ms Elsner plans to press for a change in German law whereby only qualified doctors would be able to help the incurably ill to commit suicide.

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