LYON, France — Klaus Barbie, once the most feared Nazi in Lyon, was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment early today for a series of "crimes against humanity" committed when he was the German Gestapo chief here in 1943 and 1944.
With head slightly bowed, the 73-year-old Barbie showed no sign of emotion as he listened intently to an interpreter relay the verdict from Presiding Judge Andre Cerdini. The French court of three judges and nine jurors, by the required majority of "at least eight votes out of 12," had found him guilty of all charges.
For half an hour, Barbie, his eyes sunken and darkened, then listened to the judge read the list of his crimes--almost all involving the arrest and deportation of several hundred Jews and members of the French Resistance movement to Nazi extermination camps.
Spectators in the packed courtroom broke into applause when they heard the life sentence, the maximum penalty under French law, and they were soon joined by cheers from several hundred people who had been waiting outside the Palace of Justice for news of the verdict.
Defense attorney Jacques Verges gestured contemptuously at the applauders. Spectators whistled, booed and spat on Verges as he was led from the courtroom surrounded by scores of police. Officers with batons charged the crowd outside, and Verges was forced to return to the courtroom until police drove the demonstrators away.
Serge Klarsfeld, a French Jewish lawyer who had helped his German-born wife, Beate, track down Barbie in his one-time haven in Bolivia, was quick to express his satisfaction at the verdict and sentence.
Klarsfeld, who took part in the trial as a private lawyer for the families of 44 children rounded up by the Gestapo from a camp in the village of Izieu and deported to the gas chambers of Auschwitz, said the verdict means "the children of Izieu will not die, and for me, that's a satisfaction."
"The French people do not forget," he went on. "They have condemned all the crimes committed by the Nazis. There has been no banalization."
His use of that expression reflected a fear by many French intellectuals that the arguments in the trial might succeed in belittling the horror of the Nazi "final solution" of exterminating Jews.
Verdict in Six Hours
The panel of judges and jurors took six hours to reach their verdict. They came back to the courtroom shortly after midnight.
In a dramatic moment before the case reached the jury late Friday afternoon, a manacled Barbie, who had refused to attend almost every session of the trial, was led by police into the courtroom. Judge Cerdini had ruled that Barbie would be forced to attend to make a final statement if he chose and to hear the verdict.
Barbie, looking gaunt, did not hesitate to speak, and it was soon clear that the most heart-rending accusation against him, the roundup of the Jewish children from Izieu on April 6, 1944, was most on his mind.
Asked if he had a final statement to make in his defense, Barbie replied, speaking softly and slowly: "Yes, I have a few words to say in French. I did not order the roundup of Izieu. I never had the power to decide about deportations.
'The War Is Over'
"I fought the Resistance, which I respected, in a hard manner," he went on. "But that was the war, and the war is over."
In his final argument, Verges, a histrionic and iconoclastic lawyer, described Barbie as a scapegoat for all the crimes of Nazism and asserted that the case against him was flimsy, based on contradictory testimony, confusing assumptions, and questionable documents. He spent a good deal of time Friday denouncing as a forgery a telex message signed by Barbie that reported the Izieu roundup to German headquarters in Paris.
Later, after the verdict, Klarsfeld, who had uncovered the telex, told reporters, "After four years of Verges accusing me of being a forger and a manipulator, the French people have decided who is guilty, Barbie or me."
In his defense summation, Verges said that Barbie was not even in Lyon at the time the telex was sent and that the prosecution had taken the attitude that "since Hitler is guilty, Barbie must be guilty, of no matter what."
But the 62-year-old Verges, who has made a career of defending unpopular causes, also seemed to enjoy mocking the private, mostly Jewish lawyers who, as authorized under French law, represented the victims and their families at the trial.
Upset the Lawyers
Arguing that Barbie, despite his role as chief of the Gestapo in Lyon, would not have known about the extermination of the Jews, Verges obviously upset the lawyers by insisting that Adolf Hitler had not planned extremely harsh measures against Jews until his views on "the Jewish problem" were radicalized during World War II.