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An Italian doctor who switched off the life support of a paralysed man at the centre of a battle over euthanasia has been cleared of wrongdoing by a medical panel, in what he called a victory for patients’ rights.

Anaesthetist Mario Riccio divided Roman Catholic Italy by granting Piergiorgio Welby his wish to die in December, after a battle with muscular dystrophy that Welby described as torture.

Supporters see Riccio as a hero for ignoring a court ruling that rejected Welby’s request to have his respirator removed. Opponents said Riccio was a criminal who should go to jail. Prosecutors are investigating Welby’s death.

After more than a month of reviewing the case, a committee of doctors in Cremona voted unanimously that Riccio had not violated any rules. The decision was reached late on Wednesday and announced on Thursday.

‘From the point of view of medical ethics, this decision means that the patient’s right to suspend treatment is recognised, even if this suspension can lead to death,’ Riccio told Reuters in an interview.

Welby, 60, an eloquent advocate of euthanasia was denied a Catholic funeral because he had asked to die, and Pope Benedict entered the debate by saying life was sacred until its ‘natural sunset’.

Riccio, who removed the respirator after giving Welby sedatives, denied he had performed euthanasia, which is illegal in Italy and carries a 10-15 year jail term.

Former Italian President Francesco Cossiga formally demanded magistrates consider Riccio a murder suspect last month but Riccio said on Thursday he had still not been named as a suspect in the investigation into Welby’s death.

‘There is also no hypothesis of a crime … as far as I know,’ he said. ‘We’ll have to wait for the judiciary.’

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