Fury in Bonn over 'dealers in poison'

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Critics of euthanasia in Germany yesterday expressed outrage over the fact that a man convicted of selling cyanide for huge profits to more than 100 people has been allowed to go free.

They called for strict new laws regulating suicide and assistance to suicide, with the aim of eliminating the vast 'grey area' in which 'dealers in poison' can currently ply their trade.

The calls came one day after a court in the southern city of Augsburg handed down a two- year suspended sentence on Hans Henning Atrott, the former head of Germany's largest euthanasia society, after finding him guilty of illegally selling cyanide to 120 people, at least seven of whom subsequently committed suicide.

As helping people to kill themselves is not a crime in Germany, Mr Atrott was convicted of contravening pharmaceutical laws and evading income tax on some 220,000 Deutschmarks ( pounds 88,000) that he earned from the sales. In addition to the suspended sentence, the court imposed a DM40,000 fine on Mr Atrott, who charged his clients as much as DM9,000 for a cyanide capsule costing less than one mark to produce.

On hearing the sentence, Mr Atrott, who did not deny the charges, announced his intention to resume his post as president of the Augsburg-based Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Humanes Sterben (German Society for Humane Dying).

'This is a man who, without any moral considerations, plays at being master over life and death,' protested the Westfalische Nachrichten newspaper. 'And after this appalling judgment, he will continue to do so.'

Many commentators were incensed by the fact that, given the nature of Mr Atrott's business, the court had only been able to convict him on relatively minor charges and had in no way addressed the real issue at stake: the morality of helping the old, weak and infirm take their own lives.

Against the backdrop of the Nazis' horrific abuse of euthanasia, German politicians, judges and doctors are generally reluctant to discuss the subject, let alone legislate on it.

The Mannheimer Morgen newspaper suggested that the Atrott case pointed to a wider deficit in society. 'People reaching the end of their lives are left on their own,' it said. 'What they need at that point is help, guidance, love and compassion. What they get is the precise opposite: poison.'