A British pensioner charged in Cyprus with the premeditated murder of his terminally ill wife says he is ‘desperate’ to have his day in court before the trial begins on the island.
David Hunter is due to appear in an Assize Court in the coastal town of Paphos on Monday, nearly nine months to the day after he admitted suffocating to death his 75-year-old wife, Janice.
“He is 76 years old and desperate for the case to be heard,” said Michael Polak, a lawyer with UK-based legal aid group Justice Abroad, who flew in for the hearing. “He has been detained for a long time and it is clear from visiting him in Nicosia Central Jail that he is very anxious for this to take off.”
Postponed by a three-member tribunal in June, court proceedings are expected to begin with prosecution witnesses on the stand.
The former Northumberland miner, who shares a cell with 11 other men in an overcrowded prison, faces the rest of his life behind bars if convicted.
The couple, who were teenagers, resettled in Cyprus for what they hoped would be a dream retirement life abroad.
But as Christmas approached last year – fearing she would suffer the same fate as her sister Kathleen, who had endured an agonizing death from the same illness – Janice reportedly began pleading with her husband to end his life so that her health was deteriorating due to the leukemia she was diagnosed with in 2016.
Hunter says he finally found the strength to answer her calls on the night of December 18 as she sat in her favorite chair in the living room of the maisonette they had rented in Tremithousa, a village in the outside of Paphos. He then attempted suicide by overdosing on prescription pills.
The couple’s daughter, Lesley Cawthorne, 49, said it was vital her father was sent home where he could start mourning his mother properly and be cared for.
“I can tell you he’s very depressed,” said Cawthorne, who has been supportive of her father since the moment she learned he had ended her mother’s “terrible pain and suffering”. “Her mental health is probably the worst she’s ever been.”
Paphos court is less than three miles from Tremithousa, where Janice is buried. Hunter has repeatedly expressed his frustration and anger at not being allowed to visit his wife’s grave.
Euthanasia is prohibited in Cyprus. In a Mediterranean society dominated by the Orthodox Church, the issue has long been considered taboo, with parliament only recently beginning to debate whether to legalize it.
A plea for the charge of premeditated murder to be reduced to assisted suicide in accordance with legislation elsewhere in Europe was rejected, flatly, by the island’s attorney general.
Achilleas Demetriades, a candidate for next year’s presidential election, told the Guardian the mercy killing highlighted just how far Cyprus remains out of step with the rest of the EU on the issue of dying with dignity.
“The laws of Cyprus do not provide for euthanasia and this clearly needs to be changed,” said the leading human rights lawyer, who is challenging the February poll as an independent. “Society has progressed to the point of accepting that assisted suicide is permitted in certain circumstances. After all, people have the right to life, but they also have the right to die with dignity. »
Police rushed to the cottage after being alerted by Hunter’s brother who had himself been called by the pensioner before his own suicide attempt.
In circumstances which raised further questions, the Briton was questioned without the presence of a lawyer or an interpreter moments before he was rushed to hospital to have his stomach pumped. He then spent ten days in a psychiatric clinic in Nicosia before being admitted to prison.
“This is a historic case as it is the first involving euthanasia in Cyprus,” said
Polak, who coordinates Hunter’s defense team, said: “David is determined to fight every step of the way. He keeps talking about how he and Janice did everything together and the pain she felt. It is very difficult to see what the public interest is in prosecuting him for murder.
Polak claimed that the attorney general denied requests to reduce the charge to assisted suicide for political reasons. “It seems they don’t want to make a decision before Parliament legislates on the matter,” he said. “And now we expect the trial to last several months.”
The pensioner’s plight generated an outpouring of public sympathy from locals. In Tremithousa, many said the sentence that had already been meted out in the form of prolonged incarceration was not befitting the crime.
“He shouldn’t be in jail,” said Christofis Petrou, who leads the village community and had known the couple as their landlord. “I spoke to David in the courtroom [in June] and tells him that we are all with him. He is a good man. Our old-fashioned laws are bad, not David.