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Cashing in on despair? Suicide clinic Dignitas is a profit obsessed killing machine, claims ex-worker
By Allan HallLast updated at 10:17 PM on 25th January 2009
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The black plastic bin liners were bulging and cluttered the back stairs to the office of Ludwig Minelli, founder and head of the assisted suicide organisation Dignitas.
Soraya Wernli was new to the job as a 'companion', one of those hired by Minelli, 75, to assist people in their final journey to the 'other side'.
Paperwork, words of comfort, a gentle hand for those about to end their pain-filled lives - these were some of the things the former district nurse knew she was signing up for when she agreed to work for him.
'But then, just a few days into the job, he asked me to sort through the stuff in these plastic bin liners clogging the stairs,' she said.
Valuable service or cynical profit grab? Motor neurone sufferer Craig Ewert passes away in a recent documentary - there is no suggestion he has been exploited as others allegedly have been
'Minelli said I should empty the sacks onto a long table - they were huge - and sort through everything. I opened one up and was horrified by what was inside. Mobile phones, handbags, ladies' tights, shoes, spectacles, money, purses, wallets, jewels.
'I realised these were possessions which had been left behind by the dead. They had never been returned to family members. Minelli made his patients sign forms saying the possessions were now the property of Dignitas and then sold everything on to pawn and second-hand shops.
'I felt disgusted. You see these old photos of people in Nazi death camps sorting through the possessions of those who had been gassed. Well, right then and there, that is how I felt.'
Nurse Soraya Wernli alleges that there is no dignity for some patients
As a nurse and a former care worker for the elderly, Mrs Wernli, 51, was no stranger to death and a supporter of assisted suicide.
But in the two-and-a-half years she spent working for Minelli at his 'clinic' in Zurich, she came to believe that Dignitas was less about ethical euthanasia for the terminally ill and more of a money-making machine. Since breaking with Minelli in 2005, the motherof-three has made it something of a quest to try to stop him and his killing machine.
She has launched lawsuits against him, and spent the last eight months of her time at the clinic acting as an undercover informant for the police, who were also concerned by Minelli.
Nominated for the Prize of Courage by a Swiss newspaper in 2007 - she garnered praise for her efforts in exposing what she claims is a 'production line of death concerned only with profits' - Mrs Wernli has embarked on writing a book.
It has the title The Business With The Deadly Cocktails, and she promises an in- depth expose of a 'principled and necessary organisation gone bad'.
She lives with her husband some 50 miles from Zurich where, in the past ten years, Dignitas has helped an estimated 1,000 people to kill themselves with a cocktail of drugs.
More than 100 of them have been Britons, some of them accompanied and assisted by Mrs Wernli, who was on a salary of £4,500 a month.
'Minelli is book-keeper, secretary general-chief accountant and gatekeeper of the organisation. Nothing gets audited,' says Mrs Wernli. 'It is time the Swiss authorities stopped pussyfooting around him.'
Mrs Wernli, a mild-mannered, attractive blonde, was drawn into the Dignitas organisation through her husband Kurt's friendship with Minelli - a man he has known for 35 years. That friendship, like her employment, is now terminated. These days, the only time the two sides ever speak is through their respective lawyers.
As a companion to those seeking to end their lives, Mrs Wernli has sat in on the suicides of 35 people. One of the first she met was Reginald Crew, 74, from Liverpool, who ended his life in the 'death house' - a residential block in Gertrudstrasse, Zurich, in January 2003.
The motor neurone disease sufferer was one of the first Britons to take advantage of the legal black hole which Dignitas exploits. Switzerland's liberal laws on assisted suicide suggest that a person can be prosecuted only if they are acting out of self-interest.
Drug cocktail: A medicine bottle at Dignitas
Minelli, a former journalist who has two daughters, has never been prosecuted for an illegal killing, but Mrs Wernli said she has seen enough to know the Swiss authorities' indifference to his practice is wrong.
'Mr Crew arrived in the morning and was dead just hours later,' she says. 'This was another of my many clashes with Minelli. I argued that it wasn't right that people land at the airport, are ferried to his office, have their requisite half-an-hour with a doctor, get the barbiturates they need and are then sent off to die.
'This is the biggest step anyone will ever take. They should at least be allowed to stay overnight, to think about what they are doing. But Minelli would have none of it. He once said to me that if he had his way, he would have vending machines where people could buy barbiturates to end their lives as easily as if they were buying a soft drink or a bar of chocolate. I support assisted suicide - but not the way he went about it.'
The Gertrudstrasse flat was a small affair, furnished cheaply and serviced by a single lift. When the corpses were brought downstairs to waiting hearses, the other residents complained of 'sharing the lift with the stiffs'.
'But it wasn't just the dead who had the indignity of being stood up in body bags to be transported to the hearses below,' recalls Mrs Wernli.
'I remember a very large, wheelchair-bound British lady who had come to die. She was too big to fit into the lift. So her wheelchair had to be manoeuvred up the stairs to the flat. Her screams filled the place, she was in so much pain.
'The room where people were to die was often filthy, because Minelli skimped on the cleaning bills. Often there would be shoes or underwear or some other deeply personal item of an earlier victim lying beneath the bed or around the room. It was shameful.
'I tried to be as professional and caring as possible; checking the paperwork and making sure that, above everything, those who wanted to die were suffering from a terminal illness and were not psychiatrically ill or simply tired of life.'
Daniel James decided to end his life after being left paralysed during a rugby accident
Eventually, Minelli was forced out to find new premises, finding a room in a business park, close to a garage and a martial arts centre. Daniel James, a young rugby player from Worcester, ended his life there in September last year.
Just 23, Daniel had been paralysed after being crushed in a rugby scrum during training, and did not want to live his life in a wheelchair.
The case caused concern both in the UK and Switzerland - but Minelli, who is also a qualified lawyer, and who knows better than most how to weave his way through the morass of opaque Swiss legislation, seems to have got away with it.
'Daniel James was by no means the first person to have been helped to die who wasn't terminally ill - and I doubt he will be the last,' says Mrs Wernli.
'In March 2003, there were Robert and Jennifer Stokes from Leighton Buzzard, who were in their 50s and both had a history of mental illness and failed suicide attempts.
'They were in constant pain from chronic diseases, but were not considered to be dying. Yet they were dispatched with the aid of Dignitas.
'Minelli later said that depression, in certain circumstances, can be deemed an "irreversible illness".'
'This was another of my big rows with Minelli early on. I argued - and I had experience of this through my career as a nurse - that double suicides should never be sanctioned. One partner may want to die simply because he or she cannot cope with being alone.
'To that end, I got Minelli to agree to move one of the beds out of the death room at the Gertrudstrasse house. But I later learned that he went behind my back. Other, more unscrupulous workers took my place to allow couples to kill themselves; one dying on the floor, the other on the bed.
'And Minelli has the cheek to call his practice Dignitas, when dignity is the last thing afforded to these poor people.'
Mrs Wernli has been pressing for an official examination of Minelli's books. While he charges around £7,000 for an assisted suicide and funeral, she claims many wealthy people have bequeathed him 'vast sums'.
'I remember the case of Martha Hauschildt, a German woman, who died aged 81 in the death house in July 2003. I saw from the paperwork that she gave Minelli 200,000 Swiss francs - around £120,000. These are people who are vulnerable.'
But it is not just Minelli who attracts Mrs Wernli's criticism. She also says some of the doctors that Dignitas has used over the years - to screen would-be suicides and to write out the prescriptions for the barbiturates they need to kill themselves with - were either corrupt or inept.
Three have been removed from their posts by the authorities, and one doctor - an 82-year-old man whom Mrs Wernli claims was 'clearly not with it' - has since died. 'The doctors get 500 francs from Minelli for an examination,' she says. 'I don't know of a single case where they have refused to hand out the drugs.'
The Dignitas logo, from their Zurich offices
She also says Minelli has a private stock of drugs in his personal office. 'I can only assume they're in case of emergency,' she said.
It was the gruesome 70-hour death of Peter Auhagen, a German man, that came closest to bringing Minelli into the dock. It was the case that finished Mrs Wernli with Dignitas and sent her to the police, where she enrolled as a secret informer.
The scandal of Auhagen's death was the subject of a TV documentary in Germany. Crippled by a brain haemorrhage, he went to Dignitas in August 2004 to die, accompanied by his wife and two sons.
The majority of Dignitas clients kill themselves by drinking a spiked drug cocktail containing a lethal dose of barbiturates.
But Mrs Wernli recalls: 'On this occasion Minelli wanted to try out a "suicide machine" - which operated by a system of tubes and valves - that the patient controlled to administer the drugs intravenously.
'I don't know where Minelli had got this machine from. All I know is the man was still alive in the death room 24 hours later. I had to take over from the female companion who was there because she was exhausted.
'The machine had a fault which meant it couldn't pump all the poison into his system. The man was partially poisoned, in agony and thrashing around in a coma, frothing at the mouth and sweating. I had to clean him. It was a terrible thing to witness, and I knew it could not go on.
'I slept on the kitchen floor of the apartment that night. In the morning, after 48 hours had gone by, I told the family Mr Auhagen had to go to hospital. I rang Minelli and he broke with his usual habit by actually turning up at the death house.'
This was indeed out of character - Minelli's offices are in a different area to the flat, and he normally stays well clear of the scene.
Mrs Wernli went on: 'He was angry - not at the failed suicide, but with me for suggesting that the man should be in a hospital bed. "Are you crazy?" he said. "Do you know what the papers will say about this - that Dignitas has mucked it all up? We are falling behind here - there are others waiting to use that room!
' "You are here as a helper. This man wants to die, and he cannot die. I want you to help this man and his family here."
The end: A coffin leaves the Dignitas building following another assisted suicide
'I told him I loved my three children and I didn't want to spend the next five years separated from them in prison.
'He then confronted the family and said: "Bundle him up and drive him back across the border to a German hospital where you won't have to pay for hospital treatment."
'One of the sons grabbed Minelli by the throat - he was that angry.
Then Minelli calmed the situation down and suggested the family go for a walk.'
What occurred next is lost in the ether of accusation and counteraccusation, but one fact is incontrovertible: Mr Auhagen died in that room.
Minelli told police that he passed away as he turned him over, and that 'under no circumstances' had he been injected with suicide drugs - an act which would be illegal.
Mrs Wernli has tears in her eyes as she recounts the events of that day. She says: 'Of course, I know what I think, and that is what I later told the police. Someone, I don't know who, administered the drugs by injection. His widow confirmed as much on the TV programme. But this whole shabby, shameful episode made me know I wanted to close Minelli down.'
Zurich police confirm that Mrs Wernli became an undercover informer. For eight months she passed on information about Minelli and his practices to detectives. Then, she quietly left the clinic, without informing Minelli of her undercover role. She hasn't seen him since.
Swiss prosecutors confirm they are handling her claims about personal property being sold on and Minelli's alleged personal enrichment. Minelli denies all the allegations.
'Mrs Soraya Wernli quit working with Dignitas back in March 2005 - almost four years ago,' said a spokesman for Dignitas. 'Thus, we wonder how she should possibly be competent to know how we work these days.
'There are, and have been, people around, who - for whatever reasons - spread rumours and false allegations. Generally, we do not comment on these rumours and allegations any more, because it is simply a waste of time.'
Whatever the case, Dignitas today is still in business and people are still dying. Now employees are made to sign a privacy agreement personally drawn up by Minelli.
Mrs Wernli has not given up. 'I like to think that some of what I passed on is still being examined by the police,' she says.
'But this is Switzerland, and things move slowly, if at all. All I can promise is that I will not stop speaking out because Dignitas is an organisation that must be stopped.'