Reims (France) (AFP) - A Frenchman at the centre of a bitter right-to-die legal feud that has raged for a decade passed away in hospital on Thursday after doctors removed his life support, his family said.
The legal battle over whether Vincent Lambert, 42, should die has divided the country as well as his own family, with his parents using every legal avenue to keep him alive but his wife and nephew insisting he must be allowed to die.
Doctors at the hospital in Reims in northern France removed his hydration and nutrition tubes last week, following a final ruling by France's top appeals court.
"Vincent died at 8:24 am (0624 GMT) this morning," his nephew Francois Lambert told AFP, expressing his "relief after years of suffering for everyone".
"We were ready to let him go," he added, saying he had been notified about his uncle's death by the doctor treating him.
"It is not sad. It is rationality gaining the upper hand. This was a human being who was suffering and the various theatrical gestures did not mean much," he added.
- 'Renounced oath' -
Lambert was involved in a near-fatal car crash in 2008 that left him a quadriplegic with severe brain damage which doctors had long said was irreversible.
Left in a vegetative state, the question of whether to continue keeping him alive artificially triggered a years-long legal battle that raged in the highest courts in France and Europe.
The top prosecutor for the Reims region Matthieu Bourrette said that he had opened an investigation into the cause of death to ensure that the end of Lambert's life was in line with the law.
A post-mortem will be carried out in Paris on Friday, he added.
On July 2, Dr Vincent Sanchez, head of palliative care at the University Hospital in Reims, had begun removing the life support mechanisms in a process which was completed by Wednesday evening.
Although Lambert's feeding and hydration tubes were removed, he was kept under "deep and continuous sedation".
Multiple medical assessments ordered by the courts over the years found that the former psychiatric nurse, who was poised to become a father shortly before his accident, had no chance of recovering.
Jean Paillot and Jerome Triomphe, the lawyers for Lambert's parents Pierre and Viviane slammed his death as a "crime of the state", accusing Sanchez of "renouncing his Hippocratic Oath".
- 'Failure of humanity' -
The case rekindled a charged debate over France's right-to-die laws, which allow so-called "passive" euthanasia for severely ill or injured patients who are being kept alive artificially with no chance of recovery.
Even Pope Francis intervened, tweeting in May that it was necessary to "always safeguard life, God's gift, from its beginning until its natural end".
On Thursday, the Vatican expressed its "sorrow" over Lambert's death, expressing "solidarity with his loved ones and with all those who helped them until the end, with love and devotion".
And the Vatican's Pontifical Academy said his death and what happened in the run-up to it was "a failure of our humanity", in a posting on Twitter.
France's Catholic Church also expressed sadness, with the spokesman for its Bishops' Conference Thierry Magnin telling Le Croix newspaper Lambert was "not at the end of his life".
Over the years, Lambert's deeply Catholic parents, backed by two of his eight siblings, managed to successfully challenge five different attempts by doctors to halt his life-support.
But his wife Rachel, his doctors, six other brothers and sisters and a nephew have fought for his right to die, arguing it was the more humane option.
France's top appeals court, the Cour de Cassation, on June 28 ruled doctors could legally end his life support in a definitive final judgement.
In early May, the UN committee on disabled rights also asked France to keep Lambert alive while it conducted its own investigation into his fate, but the government said it was not legally bound to abide by its request.