THE HAGUE (Reuters) - Dutch authorities are investigating 33 suspected deaths of people who bought a "suicide powder" from a member of a right-to-die group in the Netherlands, prosecutors said on Wednesday.
The number of cases surfaced in procedural hearings ahead of a possible trial of several members of the group calling itself Cooperative Last Will. The number is expected to rise after another member of the group told a newspaper he had sold the powder to more than a hundred people.
The cooperative, which has been promoting "Substance X" as a cheap and painless way to die since 2018, is a criminal organisation which aids illegal assisted suicides, prosecutors argued.
Euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are legal in the Netherlands under very strict conditions and when overseen by medical professionals.
Assisting a suicide, or providing a means to commit suicide outside of the strict euthanasia criteria, is punishable with a jail term of up to three years.
Prosecutors have accused a 28-year-old member of the cooperative of illegally dispensing medication and money laundering and expect to charge him with aiding assisted suicide, spokesman Bart Vaessen said.
"We are investigating 33 cases where "Substance X" was sold to people who later died. In 15 of those cases it was concluded they died of using "Substance X", Vaessen said.
The suspect, Alex Schot, was released pending trial. Two other members were arrested last week. One of them, 78-year-old psychologist Wim van Dijk, later told Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant that he had sold "Substance X" to "over a hundred people".
The chairman of the cooperative, Jos van Wijk, is also under investigation. He told Dutch talkshow Op1 that Cooperative Last Will has "always operated within the confines of the law".
The Netherlands was the first country in the world to legalize euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide in 2002.
Patients have to be experiencing unbearable physical or mental suffering, with no prospect for improvement, and have to have asked repeatedly to die while of sound mind.
Qualified medical doctors determine whether the criteria have been met. Cases are reviewed by an independent panel and referred to the authorities in case of doubt.