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ROME - Supporters and opponents of euthanasia today awaited a court's ruling on the fate of a paralysed, terminally ill Italian man who wants doctors to take him off life support so he can die.

The case of 60-year-old Piergiorgio Welby has sparked fierce debate in the predominantly Roman Catholic country where euthanasia is illegal.

Welby suffers from advanced muscular dystrophy and is confined to a bed, attached to a respirator. But he has become one of the most recognised faces in the country.

Welby, who is lucid and speaks via a computer that interprets his eye movements, has appeared on news programs and written to Italy's president and newspapers asking to be allowed to "find peace for my tortured and shattered body".

A Rome court began examining an appeal on his behalf on Tuesday but the ruling could take days.

His lawyers say that doctors, by their own code of ethics, have no right to keep him alive against his wishes and that doing so amounts to what is known in Italy as "accanimento terapeutico" -- forcefully administering life-sustaining treatment that does not improve the patient's condition.

They are basing their appeal on an article of Italy's constitution stating that no one can be forced to accept a specific medical treatment.

"Welby has expressed a clear will. He wants the court to order doctors to remove the respirator that is keeping him alive and at the same time give him sedatives that would stop his suffering until he dies," said defence lawyer Riccardo Maia.

Prosecutors who gave an opinion to the court said on Monday Welby had a right to have the respirator removed but, underscoring the legal complexity of the case, also said doctors would have the right to resuscitate him if they chose to.

The case has divided Prime Minister Romano Prodi's centre-left coalition, which ranges from Catholic moderates to communists, and sparked accusations by the centre-right opposition that the government is trying to legalise euthanasia.

Doctors who perform euthanasia in Italy can face prison terms of up to 15 years. The Roman Catholic Church forbids it.

However, the church's Catechism says medical procedures that are "burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary or disproportionate to the expected outcome" can be discontinued with the permission of the patient or family. Euthanasia supporters say the will of the patient is key.

Only Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium and the US state of Oregon permit assisted suicide for the terminally ill.

- REUTERS