Zurich Authorities get Involved in Assisted Suicide

The Zurich authorities, more specifially the Secretary of Justice of the Canton of Zurich Markus Notter, has decided to insert himself as setter of standards regarding to how and when private companies can assist people in commiting suicide.

In Switzerland it is legal to assist someone to commit suicide, provided such assistance is not done for egoistic or selfish motives (Art. 115, Swiss Criminal Code):

Assistance or inducement to suicide

Whoever for selfish motives induces someone  or assists him to commit suicide will, if the suicide is executed or attempted, be imprisoned for not more than five years or fined.

It has always escaped me why Zurich authorities think that helping people kill themselves and making a good profit from this assistance is not selfish or egoistic.

In most European countries assisting people to commit suicide is illegal or even criminal. So, if you are the only one to be able to do so without facing legal repercussions, can mean big business. That assisted suicide is a big market waiting to be developed is clear from the fact that many people, for example from the UK and Germany, come to Switzerland just to kill themselves.

In Switzerland, there are two companies, both organized as associations under Swiss law – presumably for tax and legal reasons – that offer this unique ‘service’. The first one is EXIT and the other is Dignitas.

There are currently no laws or regualtions that regulate this business, so Mr. Notter deciced to go out on a limb an task the Attorney General (AG), which is a non-elected official named to his post by the executive, to negotiate a contract with one of those companies, namely EXIT, that would regulate their behavior.

Recently NZZ Online on 29.06.2009 wrote (translation and emphasis mine):

Assisted suicide by private organisations like EXIT or Dignitas has grown into a problem for Zurich authorities, because in addition to ethical considerations financial issues have come into play. With every case of assisted suicide, the State [Canton of Zurich] bears costs of several thousand Swiss francs for investigations. It is also for this reason, that the Zurich Department of Justice tries to contractually nail down the requirements for assisted suicide. For several month a draft, that has been negotiated by AG Andreas Brunner together with Exit, has been available. Since May, however, it is also known that the issue is not without controversy inside the executive branch of government. This week the clear opposition of Thomas Heiniger, Secretary of Health, has raised some eyebrows. According to him it is not the task of the State to negotiate such issues with a private organization. The Department of Justice reacted to this by saying that they would continue with it anyway and the the contract would be signed soon.

This is alarming for several reasons.

First, as Thomas Heiniger rightly points out, it is not up to the State authorities to negotiate such important questions with private organizations. It is the job of legislative body to set the rules by enacting laws.
There needs to be a public discussion, a legislative process and possibly a referendum so the population can have their say on this. Mr. Notter tries to short-circuit this legislative process and is acting, in my view, ultra vires, that is beyond his powers.

Second, the AG general is the head of the investigative body that has to enforce the laws and is supposed to handle criminal investigations impartially, including such investigations that concern Art. 115 mentioned above. The AG can give orders to the prosecutors who work for him, so how would any future criminal investigation of EXIT be considered independent or impartial? The credibility of law enforcement is at stake here.

Third, even though the Secretary of Justice is technically the AGs boss, the former cannot give directions as to how, when and what the latter does or does not investigate. So how can the AG be tasked with such a thing as negotiating with a possible subject of criminal investigations whether they are working legally or not? That is simply not negotiable, the law is clear. If there are doubts about the law, prosecute, indict and let the courts speak.

Fourth, the courts are not bound by this contract. It is simply not enforcable as it attempts to negotiate something that the executive does have no power to negotiate. The problem here is the  involvement of the AG. This is highly improper, since he will be reluctant to indict EXIT if they have followed the contract, even though it is not legally binding, because he has negotiated that and EXIT has relied on that. Is that then viewed as a get-out-of-jail free card from the AG to EXIT, will the AG even investigate or indict in such a case when someone files a criminal complaint, but the AG thinks that this contract has been honored? Probably not.

It is amazing to see with wich ease the rule of law is just brushed aside here. The democratically legitimized exercise of power and the rule of law does not seem of much interest to Mr. Notter or Mr. Brunner one might conclude. Even the clear and vocal dissent of one of his colleagues, does not stop him from continuing.

Some interesting details about the relationship of Zurich authorities with EXIT further make this whole thing appear somewhat dubious.

The association EXIT was founded in 1982 and celebrated its 25 year birthday in 2007.
Guest speaker at this event was none other then the AG Andreas Brunner. Now tell me, what is an AG thinking that goes to be the main speaker at an event of a private organization who at any moment can become subject to a criminal invstigation. All that would be needed is a relative files a criminal complaint. Does anyone expect a proper investigation to be conducted in such circumstances?

Even if you consider this to be legally acceptable it is not a professional attitude of a chief prosecutor. Excerpt from the Exit press release (translation mine):

The main speech was held by Zurich’s Attorney General Andreas Brunner. For EXIT his appearing at the event was a nice gesture of recognition and for Andreas Brunner it was an “expression of a culture which is, despite of all the differences in function, characterized by mutual regard and mutual respect of  the other’s work.”

So the AG has lots of respect for people who help other people kill themselves and make money with it. How strange, that he cozies up to an organization, that helps people end their lives and that has been subject of criminal investigations in the past.

The EXIT audience at the event liked what they heard and applauded for a long time after the speech. The full Exit press release follows here (German):

I’d call that a lack of distance between the highest law enforcer in Zurich and EXIT nothing short of a scandal.
It turns out, however, that this lack of distance between EXIT and the Zurich authorities has a longer history that goes back right to the foundation of EXIT.

Let’s have a look at the persons, especially the board, of EXIT.

First there is Ernst Hägi, der in-house attorney of Exit. His previous tasks included, among other things, working for the highest court in Zurich, the Obergericht, which also handels criminal cases as an appelate court or as a court of first instance, depending on the nature of the crime. It would thus have to handle any indictments regarding EXIT.
From 1969 to 1975 he worked at the Obergericht as a legal clerk. He was introduced to Exit in 1988 by Dr. Robert Kehl, who for over 40 years also worked for the same court. Thirty of which as legal clerk and ten as  part time judge. Dr Robert Kehl was member of the board of EXIT since 1984.

Working for EXIT can be very lucrative as an article in the weekly magazin Beobachter (06/01 – 2001) demonstrates. It seems that Mr. Haegi got for a 20% job at EXIT, of which half was dedicated to legal matters a salary of CHF 60,000. Whether he was filing for and receive compensation for any expenses we do not learn from the. The article also does not say what he did during the other 10%.

What we do learn, however, is that being  a member of the EXIT board can be very lucrative financially and that the relations between Zurich’s Justice Department and highest court are a longstanding matter.

The current president of the board of Exit, Hans Wehrli, by the way happened to be a councillor (executive body) of the city of Zurich from 1992 to 1998. He was responsible for  Education and Schools.
He joined Exit in 1999 und was elected president of the board in 2007.

These arrangements do reek of conflict of interest situations that are bordering on corruption.
However, corruption does not exist in Switzerland. At least that’s the official claim. But even if that were true, why are the close relationship of former and current Zurich authorities responsible for enforcing the law so interested and so cosy with an organization that helps people kill themselves?

One also wonders what it is that draws all these (former) officials, some of them elected some named to their posts, but all of them supposedly working for the benefit of the people, flock in droves to an organization that helps people kill themselves after they quit working for the government. Looks a bit, well, moribund.

Reading the NZZ article mentioned above, one has to conclude that the the Zurich authorities signed this contract purely done for financial reasons.
The Canton of Zurich wants to save money and intents to do so by short-circuiting the legislative process and regulate something that he has no power to regulate.
In addition he does so in a totally inappropriate way by favoring one ‘provider’ who happens to have a specially close relationship with the authorities.

Corruption? Not in Switzerland.

Comlaints about this post by EXIT, the Attorney General or the Department of Justice of the Canton of Zurich, etc. can be directed to zeropointfield@ymail.com.

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