Right-to-die campaigner 'Dr Death' Philip Nitschke facing arrest

The Australian has previously assisted patient suicides in his home country

Paul Gallagher
Thursday 24 September 2015 08:44
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Euthanasia campaigner Dr Philip Nitschke
Euthanasia campaigner Dr Philip Nitschke

The controversial right-to-die campaigner Philip Nitschke could be arrested after Scotland Yard demanded he attend an interview under caution while preparing for his Edinburgh Fringe satirical show on euthanasia.

The 67-year-old Australian, nicknamed ‘Dr Death’ after assisting patient suicides in his home country where he is currently barred from practising, will be quizzed on whether he has breached the law on assisted suicide, currently illegal in the UK, during previous visits. He said his detention would spark “a significant free speech case” regarding whether providing information about how one can end their life constitutes ‘assisting’.

Dr Nitschke will share the Edinburgh stage with comedian Mel Moon, who last year became the youngest member of his pro-euthanasia group Exit International at the age of 34 after contracting an incurable disease affecting the endocrine system. The show, called Mel Moon: Dicing with Dr Death, is scheduled to run for 30 nights from August 6.

The Met said they are responding to a complaint about not only the Edinburgh show but also a 2013 workshop run by the London branch of Exit International. Exit workshops are based on Dr Nitschke’s The Peaceful Pill eHandbook followed by audience questions and answer sessions.

Dr Nitschke revealed he has suspended all of his group’s work in England while the Met continues to investigate. Officers will question him at Charing Cross police station Thursday afternoon before sending a report to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP).

“This all relates to whether the provision of information per se, in a country which is at least a signatory to the European conventions on free speech, is anyway a breach of assisted suicide laws,” he told the Independent. “It’s interesting timing when every British politician is falling over themselves to be an enthusiastic advocate of free speech following the Charlie Hebdo massacre. The feeling is the DPP will not want to run a case like this in this climate.”

Dr Nitschke said the Met approached him for an interview following the Independent’s report on his Edinburgh show.

His legal team replied offering free tickets to Edinburgh only to eventually receive a “terse, one sentence” disclosure statement detailing the grounds they had to interview him – namely a complaint made by a religious group.

Dr Nitschke said: “The concern seems to be that the Fringe show will somehow be an Exit International ‘workshop by stealth’. We’re expecting to be asked questions about the content of these workshops and whether it is in breach of British law.

“The police have made the point [I could be arrested]. The last time I went to a cautioned interview, in Australia, I lost my mobile phone and suddenly told me my house was about to be searched so I’m not taking it lightly. The risk of arrest is there.”

Dr Nitschke arrived in the UK following the hearing of his appeal against the suspension of his medical registration in Darwin earlier this month. The Medical Board of Australia withdrew his licence last July following revelations about his contact with Nigel Brayley, a 45-year-old Perth man who took his own life but was not terminally ill. After he died, it was revealed police were investigating Mr Brayley’s involvement in his wife’s death.

Human rights lawyer Mark Stephens said the “general, non-specific” complaint had been made by “an organisation with an agenda”.

He said: “Philip Nitschke hasn’t broken any law but obviously if the police receive a complaint they have to investigate it. There’s a lot of false information out there about what Philip does so at least [the interview] might be an opportunity to inject a degree of clarity regarding his work.”

Darwin’s Supreme Court is currently deciding on whether to return Dr Nitschke’s licence to practice with a decision expected in the coming weeks.

He said: “One good thing about the interview is that hopefully the police will get all the information they want, it will be sent off to the DPP and if they decide there is nothing [to investigate] I’ll feel a whole lot happier about continuing [to work in the UK].

“But if they decide there has been some breach of law and decide to prosecute I guess it will be a good idea to leave the country in a hurry.”

Last year the DPP clarified its policy for prosecutions on assisted suicide which is now “more focused on the motivation of the suspect rather than the characteristics of the victim”.

In 2013 Lord Falconer proposed the Assisted Dying Bill, but it was held up in the Lords earlier this year when peers only managed to discuss a handful of more than 150 amendments. He said he would try again with another bill, which would provide “competent” adults who have less than six months to live with assistance to end their own life at their own request, after the election.

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