Swiss feud over jailed hunger striker's fate

13th November 2010, Comments 0 comments

A jailed and ailing Swiss pro-cannabis campaigner who has been on hunger strike for more than 75 days is at the centre of a row in Switzerland over whether or not he should be force-fed.

The fate of Bernard Rappaz has pit the doctors refusing to force-feed him against a legal establishment intent on upholding his sentence and the regional authorities that sought Rappaz's prosecution after a long feud.

On Friday, Geneva's university hospital, where the severely weakened 57 year-old is being held in a secure ward, formally rejected a court injunction ordering his force-feeding. The hospital cited both ethical and medical grounds because of his weakened condition.

Rappaz, a hemp farmer, was sentenced to five years and eight months on drugs offences and money laundering in 2008 after years of conflict with the authorities in the southern canton of Valais.

Convicted several times in the past for dealing in cannabis, he describes himself as a political prisoner.

He was remanded to serve his sentence in March and interrupted an intermittent hunger strike for the last time in September.

"He now weighs 60 kilogrammes (132 pounds) against 90 when he was imprisoned in March," his lawyer, Aba Neeman, told AFP.

As the rugged southern Swiss farmer's life grew dangerously ill days before a request for a pardon is examined, commentators were pressing the country's embarrassed political establishment to find a way out of the impasse.

The Tages-Anzeiger newspaper on Friday raised the prospect of a tragic outcome."If no one gives way, the case will be dramatic," it warned.

Rappaz has explicitly rejected medical assistance if he falls into a coma.

Once the media seizes on the issue, "public opinion becomes the arbitor," said Pascal Viot, a sociologist at the Federal Institute of Technology at Lausanne (EPFL).

Viot said the standoff was entering a phase where humanitarian concerns usually took the upper hand, creating the possibility for a behind-the-scenes deal.

Switzerland's supreme court confirmed last month that the authorities in Valais could order force feeding.

However, Geneva hospital argued that such a step was "inapplicable" because of the "constraint that would be necessary," after their patient "reiterated his absolute refusal to submit to it."

It invoked local, federal and international laws and underlined in a statement that Rappaz was capable of making a lucid choice, regardless of whether he was jailed or not.

"Political and judicial authorities are taking the medical profession hostage by ordering force-feeding of an imprisoned hunger striker," the director of the institute of biomedical ethics at the University of Geneva, Alexandre Mauron told AFP.

Doctors should not be treated as "servants" for "the prestige and credibility of Swiss justice system," he said.

But one legal specialist who declined to be named told Le Temps newspaper that if doctors refused the court order to force-feed, they would be breaking the law.

Ursula Cassany, a professor of criminal law, said they could be liable for "intentional homicide by omission" if they violated a legal obligation to prolong the life of a patient.

Nevertheless, previous supreme court rulings indicated that the issue was not so clear cut, she added, notably in accepting passive euthanasia.

The regional government in mountainous Valais, where Rappaz cultivated hemp and produced cannabis, will examine his request for a pardon on November 18.

For some observers however, it is far from that it will be granted, given what they say is the uncompromising attitude of many of the political forces there.

"The key message that authorities in the Rappaz affair must bring to bear is that blackmail will not pay," the local branch of the hard right Swiss People's Party (SVP) said.

"One should not give in, never."

© 2010 AFP

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