Page last updated at 14:50 GMT, Tuesday, 25 May 2010 15:50 UK

The man accused of setting up false suicide pacts

By Kathryn Westcott
BBC News

A former nurse is to stand trial in the US after being charged with two counts of aiding suicide over the internet. But the case, which is one of the first of its kind, only came about because of the diligence and detective work of a woman in the UK.

William Melchert-Dinkel is alleged to have posed online as a female nurse

For more than a year and a half, Celia Blay, a 65-year-old from a small town in Wiltshire, delved into the world of online chat rooms with suicide themes, on the trail of someone she believed was hiding their identity in order to establish friendships with vulnerable young people, eventually encouraging them to end their own lives.

That person, William Melchert-Dinkel, appeared in court on Tuesday in Minneapolis, US, charged with with two counts of aiding suicides.

The charges stem from the deaths of 32-year-old Mark Drybrough, who took his own life in Birmingham, England, in 2005, and 18-year-old student Nadia Kajouji, who died in Ottawa, Canada, some three years later.

It is believed to be the first case of its kind in North America - and only one of a handful that have been brought across the globe.

Suicide pact

It was 2006 when Ms Blay received a message from a 17-year-old from South America whom she had befriended online.

"Out of the blue, she told me she was in a suicide pact with a young woman she had met on the internet. She told me she was going to take her own life in four days' time.

Celia Blay
Celia Blay tracked down Mr Melchert-Dinkel with the help of friends online

"I tried to dissuade her but she said she didn't want to let the other girl down."

Ms Blay's friend, who was a regular user of online suicide-related groups, had been depressed for some time.

"I had given her the same advice you would give a depressed teenager, advising her to talk to friends, talk to a doctor, or a priest," Ms Blay told the BBC News website.

She says she persuaded her friend to give her the name of the young woman she believed she had made a pact with.

The name - "Li Dao" - was then checked on private suicide-related groups and message boards by Ms Blay.

News of several other "pacts" spread across the message boards, and "very shortly about half a dozen people were comparing notes," she says.

Generic picture of a keyboard
In 2006, Australia became the first country to criminalise such sites. According to a report in 2009: Legal Bans on Pro suicide websites, the decision was highly controversial.

"Concerns were expressed that the law cast the criminal net too widely; inappropriately interferes with the autonomy of those who wish to die; and has jurisdiction limitations with off-shore websites remaining largely immune," the report stated.

In Australia, like most other countries, taking your own life is not illegal. Luke Neal, one of the report's authors, said that as far as he knew no prosecutions had yet been made.

At the end of last year, MPs in Canada overwhelmingly backed a motion put forward by MP Harold Albrecht to revise the criminal code legislating against aiding and abetting suicide, to reflect technological advances.

The first recorded case of two or more people using the web to form a suicide pact was in Japan in 2000. The country has introduced stricter monitoring of suicide websites.

Last year South Korea, which has had a spate of online suicide pacts, announced that it would ask internet portals to ban websites promoting suicide and improve tracking systems to delete wording encouraging people to kill themselves.

"It appears those people had been in apparent suicide pacts with the same person, and in some cases they had been scheduled for the same time," says Ms Blay.

Details and language contained in some of the communication - and in some cases pictures - led Ms Blay to believe that "Li Dao" - who is now thought to have used other aliases, including "Cami" and "Falcon Girl" - was responsible for entering into pacts with no intention of carrying them out.

"I gathered about 20 messages and took them to my local police," she says. "But they said they couldn't investigate because the sources were anonymous.

Eventually some did agree to reveal their identities, but still, she says, she got nowhere.

Finally, Ms Blay and a friend set up an "online sting". They established contact with the person they believed to be "Li Dao".

Friends she had met online helped her track down IP and email addresses used by "Li Dao", which eventually led to William Melchert-Dinkel, a husband and father in Minnesota.

While the charges - which each carry a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison - stem from two deaths, Mr Melchert-Dinkel estimates that he helped a number of other people commit suicide, according to papers filed with a court in Minnesota.

Those same papers say he "admitted to being an internet advisor in suicide methods" because of his background as a nurse, and that he later stopped because of "moral, ethical and legal issues".

Minnesota's law does not specifically address assisted suicides involving the internet, or suicides that occur out of state, and legal experts have pointed out that the case faces many challenges.

Dan Reidenberg, executive director of Minnesota's Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, said the case was unprecedented and would focus on the challenging legal issues surrounding free speech and the internet.

"There is the issue of how suggestions and comments are interpreted. Everyone has a right to say what they want to say. The defence might argue that what another person does with this is up to them."

Grey area

Legal experts have also pointed out potential problems with jurisdiction: one death occurred in Canada, the other in the UK, while Mr Melchert-Dinkel is alleged to have offered advice in the borderless realms of the internet.

Many countries have laws against assisting suicide, but most of these pre-date the internet era.

"In most countries, the law is vague - you have to do a lot to prosecute," says Paul Kelly of Papyrus, a charity in the UK that works to prevent young people taking their own lives.

"It is related to the whole question of freedom of speech. The difficulty is how the promotion of suicide is defined - after all, there are books, plays and films that deal with the issue.

There are alternatives - medical help, therapies and more importantly the help of family and friends
Paul Kelly, Papyrus

"In the UK, for example, you need to prove that there is a direct connection between what someone was saying and a person's death. You also need to prove that there was an intention of the person discussing or promoting and someone acting."

In 2001, Mr Kelly's son Simon took his own life after obtaining instructions from an internet suicide website. According to Mr Kelly, the 18-year-old had also been given the "psychological encouragement to go ahead" from a suicide chat room.

"There are positive sites people can access," he says. "Somebody feeling very distressed or suicidal, and who cannot immediately get hold of their family or friends, could seek help from such UK organisations as the Samaritans or Papyrus .

"There are alternatives - medical help, therapies and more importantly the help of family and friends. There is not just one solution."

He says that suicidal thoughts are very often "temporary" and that people do recover. "If necessary people should seek professional help."

There are no official figures for how many people have taken their own lives as a result of visiting online sites, but Mr Kelly says that Papyrus has tracked 39 such cases since 2001.

Mr Kelly says he would like to see an independent body set up to deal with complaints about potential "life threatening sites", and to be given the authority to block them if necessary.

"I believe Germany, France and Portugal have laws allowing such sites to be blacklisted, but I don't know how effective they are," he says.

A number of other countries have moved to try to limit the scope of such websites.

But, for Celia Blay, although she has nothing but praise for investigators in Minnesota, her long and tireless effort has led her to conclude that, generally: "Suicidal people have low priority in every country."

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