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Some Old Crimes Never Die

April 24, 1994

Ruling last week in a controversial World War II case, a French jury upheld the principle that there is such a thing as a "crime against humanity," and that such crimes are so egregious there can be no time limit for prosecuting the individuals who commit them.

The case involved Paul Touvier, 79, the former militia chief for the Vichy regime, the French government that cooperated with the German forces that occupied France from 1940 to 1944. Touvier was convicted of complicity in crimes against humanity for having ordered the execution of seven Jewish prisoners in June, 1944. The executions were carried out on the demand of Nazi authorities who originally wanted 30 prisoners killed in retaliation for the assassination of a top Vichy official.

Touvier's attorney tried to defend his client's actions by claiming that the execution of the seven saved the lives of 23 other potential victims. The attorney also argued that France's 30-year statute of limitations on war crimes should have precluded the prosecution of Touvier for actions that took place half a century earlier.

Many French citizens are still deeply troubled by the realization that there were so many people who, like Touvier, collaborated with the Nazis, out of opportunism if not actual sympathy. The verdict in this trial is a hopeful sign that modern France is willing to deal with those painful memories both forthrightly and honorably. With new crimes against humanity happening in places like Bosnia and elsewhere, the importance of the Touvier verdict cannot be overestimated.

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