A court in Cyprus has ruled that the confession of a retired Northumberland coalminer accused of murdering his terminally ill wife was obtained lawfully and can be used in evidence against him.

In what will amount to a major setback for David Hunter, 75, who has campaigned to be tried on the lesser charge of manslaughter, Judge Michalis Droussiotis ruled that the evidence was admissible.

The district court sitting in the coastal city of Paphos overrode objections that the pensioner’s right to a lawyer had been ignored. Instead it argued that Hunter was lucid and aware of what he was doing when he smothered his wife, Janice, on the night of 18 December 2021.

Michael Polak, the British barrister who heads the London-based legal aid group Justice Abroad, and is coordinating Hunter’s defence, said the decision would be challenged before the island’s supreme court because it was a breach of European law.

Describing Hunter as “shocked and dejected”, he said: “We will challenge the decision to include the confession … arguing that the assize court misapplied the law.”

In a country where euthanasia remains outlawed and highly controversial given opposition from the Greek Orthodox church, the case has become a cause celebre.

Vowing to do everything possible to protect Hunter’s right to a fair trial, Polak added: “The right to a lawyer, and the waiver of this right, is very strictly applied in European law. The court [acknowledged] in its judgment that despite there being no unequivocal waiver … the evidence would be accepted.”

If Cyprus’s highest legal institution found that the law had been broken, the ruling could be reversed, he said.

Hunter has spent more than a year in Nicosia central prison after admitting he ended Janice’s life, using his bare hands to block her air passages. But he has always maintained he did so only at her behest and to put her out of the excruciating pain of terminal leukaemia. Her older sister died from the disease.

Moments later – after alerting his brother William in the UK – Hunter attempted to take his own life. By the time police found the couple in their rented retirement home in the hills outside Paphos, the 74-year-old’s lifeless body was slumped in an armchair; her husband, with whom she had lived for more than 50 years, was lying on the sofa next to her. He was rushed to the resort town’s general hospital where he was detained in an emergency ward after having his stomach pumped.

In 30-page legal submissions filed last month, the Briton’s defence team had argued that after attempting to take his own life and without proper psychiatric assessment, Hunter was in no fit state to make any statements to Cypriot authorities. Citing the absence of a lawyer and interpreter, they said the confessions should be thrown out before the trial continued.

A psychiatrist who testified before the three-member court on behalf of the defence also claimed that as a result of his psychiatric condition, Hunter would have been unable to appreciate his rights. The expert told the court it was clear he was suffering from the clinical disorder of dissociation on the night of Janice’s death, ensuring the disconnection of his mind from his surroundings and any sense of identity.

The couple’s daughter, Lesley Cawthorne, has claimed her father acted at the request of her mother.

Droussiotis had adjourned proceedings for a month to restudy the case file before announcing Tuesday’s ruling. Explaining the court’s decision, he said it had been found that the Briton had been in a clear state of mind and cited his ability to call his brother, after killing his wife, as proof of his clarity.

Late last year, the attorney general, the island’s top legal authority, stepped in to revoke what the defence had described as a deal to reduce the murder charge to manslaughter.

Prosecutors argued that without proof, such as a written note, it was impossible to accept Hunter’s claim that his wife had asked him to end her life.

“It is impossible to accept after the fact, and in the absence of any evidence, that there had been an agreement and Janice wanted to die in the way she did,” the state prosecutor Andreas Hadjikyrou told the Guardian.

“We would like to help David, we are prepared to accept mitigating factors that he did not want, for example, to see her live in such pain, but we cannot accept there was a pact. If we did it would set a precedent … in future any man who kills his wife would be able to say, ‘I did so because we had an agreement.’”

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