VERSAILLES, France — Paul Touvier, the first French citizen tried for crimes against humanity, was sentenced today to life in prison for ordering the execution of seven Jews during World War II.
The former militia chief of France's collaborationist Vichy government was convicted early today of complicity in crimes against humanity.
His conviction, after an emotional five-week trial, was a historic milestone for a nation that has struggled to come to terms with its wartime past.
The 79-year-old Touvier, his face white and tense, swallowed hard several times as the verdict was read after 5 1/2 hours of deliberation by the jury. He turned around, waved to the courtroom audience and was escorted out by his lawyer.
His lawyer said Touvier will appeal the verdict. Touvier was also fined $430, and civil parties asked the court for one franc--17 cents--in symbolic payment for damages.
Touvier admitted ordering the execution of seven Jewish prisoners at Rillieux-la-Pape outside Lyons on June 29, 1944, but said he had sacrificed them to save the lives of 23 others. He said the Nazis had demanded 30 victims to avenge the assassination of Vichy Information Minister Philippe Henriot.
In a brief statement issued before jurors began deliberations, Touvier said: "I have never forgotten the victims of Rillieux. I think about them every day, every night."
Relatives of the victims welcomed the verdict.
"I have a great feeling of satisfaction tonight," said Gerard Benzimra, whose brother Claude was one of the victims. "There is no question of vengeance for me. What's important is a crime against humanity has not gone unpunished."
The trial was filled with emotional testimony by victims' families as Touvier sat stoically in a bulletproof glass booth.
Lawyer Jacques Tremolet de Villers made a final appeal for acquittal on Tuesday, saying Touvier was accused of war crimes, which cannot be prosecuted because the 30-year statute of limitations has run out.
"It was an act of war in reprisal for an act of war," he said.
Touvier will remain in custody pending his appeal.
Touvier was arrested in Nice in 1989 after spending decades as a fugitive, harbored in convents, churches and monasteries across France.