Europe court tells France to suspend right-to-die ruling

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[June 25, 2014]  PARIS (Reuters) - The European Court of Human Rights has told France to maintain life support for a tetraplegic man who has spent nearly six years in a coma while it examines a last-ditch appeal by his parents.

The request from the rights court late on Tuesday came just hours after French judges ruled doctors should be allowed to end medical support that has kept Vincent Lambert artificially alive since a motorbike crash in September 2008.

In a case that has revived debate in France over euthanasia, the last-minute twist is set to delay by months or even years the outcome of a legal battle where Lambert's parents are resisting his wife Rachel's attempts to let him die.

The Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights said in a statement the case would be treated "according to the fastest procedure possible". A spokesman there acknowledged that even emergency procedures can take months or up to one or two years.

Lambert, a former nurse in his late 30s, was plunged into a coma in a 2008 motorbike accident and is in a vegetative state.

His medical team was set to turn off feeding and hydration equipment before his parents secured an injunction last January, prolonging a family feud over a man whose fate sparked renewed debate over President Francois Hollande's promise to update France's fuzzy rules on euthanasia.

Apart from places such as Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland, few countries in the world explicitly permit euthanasia or assisted suicide.

France has left grey areas regarding more passive forms of euthanasia in a 2005 law on patient rights and care for the terminally ill.

The so-called Leonetti law does not legalize euthanasia but also states, according to government information services, that patient treatment should not involve "excessive obstination".

Jean Leonetti, the politician behind the existing rules and who has been asked by Hollande to explore new legislative options, responded frostily on Wednesday to the news of yet more delays concerning Lambert's case.

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"This is one appeal too far," he told France Inter radio.

As many as 25,000 people die a year in France after removal of medical support, according to Remi Keller, a member of the Council of State, the top administrative court that has issued Tuesday's ruling.

In a separate case, a doctor in southwestern France awaits a verdict on Wednesday over charges he hastened the end for seven dying patients in 2010-11 by administering lethal injections.

A public prosecutor recommended on Tuesday that doctor Nicolas Bonnemaison be handed a five-year suspended prison sentence on the grounds that it was illegal to kill even if Bonnemaison argued that his acts were mercy killings.

(Reporting By Gilbert Reilhac, Brian Love and Chine Labbe)

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