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Why death would be a victory for Ramon: In Xuno de Sieira Phil Davison meets a man who wants to die, but is incapable of suicide. Spanish law decrees that no one can grant his wish

RAMON SAMPEDRO distorted his lips to flick ash from a Celtas filtertip into an ashtray I held up to his chin. 'I am a head attached to a corpse,' he said, keeping the cigarette dangling. A 51-year-old former merchant seaman, he has been tetraplegic since a swimming accident 26 years ago and can move only his head.

He has spent all those years in bed, spoonfed, turned from side to side, his body waste cleaned up by his family. Ramon Sampedro wants to die, is incapable of taking his own life and, as a result of Spanish law, can find no one to carry out his wish.

His story has brought euthanasia into the open for the first time in strongly Catholic Spain and has become a test case.

A pro-euthanasia group - the Right to Die with Dignity Association (DMD) - is giving him legal and moral support. As in Britain, many fear legalising euthanasia could lead to abuses, encouraging some to rid themselves of elderly relatives. Spain's continuing conservative undercurrent, particularly in this area of Galicia where dictator Francisco Franco was born and remains revered, combined with the power of the Roman Catholic church, mean Mr Sampedro's case has hit a raw nerve.

Lucid, intelligent, poetic, often even cheery and with the dry wit of his native Galicia, Mr Sampedro, writing with a pen in his mouth, has taken his case to government ministries, Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez and the courts - without success. Rejected by the High Court in Barcelona, where the DMD and his lawyer are based, he appealed to Spain's constitutional court but learned at the weekend that his case had been rejected. The court ruled that the fact that he had launched his appeal from Barcelona meant he had 'not yet exhausted all legal options.' He could still appeal in his native Galicia, it said.

Mr Sampedro said he would try the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Though its practice has been an open secret for years, euthanasia is illegal in Spain. Helping Mr Sampedro to die could mean 20 years in jail. He bases his argument on his interpretation of the constitution, which declares equal rights for all. 'Look at me. I'm not equal to anybody,' he said, asking me to remove and stub out his half-smoked cigarette.

'The constitution defends the individual's dignity and his right to life. But it doesn't say it's obligatory to live. It also says no one should be submitted to torture. Making it obligatory to live is torture for me.'

He sees his case as having parallels with that of the Hillsborough victim Tony Bland - 'in reverse. British law gave his parents the right to let him die because he no longer had a mind. Because I have a mind, though nothing else, they won't let me die.'

One of Mr Sampedro's greatest enemies is his own personality. Listening to him quote from Kant or Kafka, reading his own poetry, or sharing a Galician joke (Spain's equivalent of an Irish joke to the English), you find yourself wishing him long life, despite sympathising with his carefully rationalised cause. His chubby cheeks, expressive eyes and warm smile have brought a similar reaction to many who have learnt of his case from television. But he says he has been determined to die since the moment, in 1968, when a doctor told him: 'This is the way you'll stay'.

Mr Sampedro lies in a hospital- style white-painted steel bed in a first floor room of his 57-year-old brother Luis's house, which allows him, if propped up, to gaze over fertile fields to the Atlantic he sailed as a ship's engineer. Luis's wife Manuela, 57, has served as his nurse for 25 years.

Alongside the white-painted modern villa is the old stone aldea (farmhouse) where Mr Sampedro was born, now a barn for the peasant family's animals.

'I joined the merchant navy, as they say, to see the world and saw much of it. I remember Glasgow,' he said, referring to my roots. 'I had a girlfriend there, Etta Nielson. I remember taking her for a Chinese meal during shore leave. For us, coming from Franco's Spain, Scottish lassies were a bit of an eye-opener.'

Mr Sampedro, then 25, had, however, found a steady girlfriend, Aurita, back here in Xuno by the time he had his accident during shore leave from the oil tanker Esso Santos. A picture of the tanker takes pride of place on one of his bedroom walls. He and Aurita were planning to marry and he was to have the crucial once-over from her family during a meal at her home on August 23, 1968. 'Earlier that day, I went down to the beach, the Playa de las Furnas,' he said, gesturing with his eyes out the window, over the narrow River Sieira towards the Atlantic breakers. 'I jumped from a rock but misjudged the depth, hit the bottom and broke my back. I was conscious throughout, couldn't move and almost drowned before a friend hauled me out. After a few months and various hospitals, they told me I would never be able to move anything but my head. It would have been better if I had drowned.'

Aurita stood by him, said they should still get married but he said no. 'I told her living with me would turn her into a kind of tetraplegic, too, and that she should go away and find happiness with someone else.' Aurita eventually married, had children and stuck by Mr Sampedro's request not to go back to see him.

Mr Sampedro's 87-year-old father Joaquin, in Galician cap and aided by a walking stick, born, like his own father, in the same aldea, came in to say hello. Like most of his generation in the Galician countryside, he spoke Galician but little Spanish. I asked him what he thought of his son's desire to die. 'There are two sides to it. I respect his wishes but . . . ' Tears welled in his eyes. His son asked him to leave.

'I know exactly what it would take to finish me. If I could somehow get some cyanide into this,' Mr Sampedro said, referring to the 'coffee liqueur' made by his family from his own recipe of grapeskin, orange peel, coffee and aguardiente, which I held for him to sip. 'But my family would get the blame, even if I wrote a note of confession.'

Puffing on another Celtas, Mr Sampedro referred to a Poe poem, The Raven, that someone had recently sent him. 'It's the concept of nevermore - never more having your body.' He asked me to read him the English version of his favourite verse and listened silently as I spoke:

But the raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only

That one word, as if his song in that one word he did outpour . . .

On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before

Then the bird said 'Nevermore.'

(Photograph omitted)