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Court Releases Vichy Official From Prison

Europe: French panel rules Maurice Papon, who deported Jews to concentration camps during WWII, is too sick to serve out his term.

September 19, 2002|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PARIS — Reopening a painful case about the persecution of Jews in France during World War II, a court on Wednesday ordered the release for medical reasons of Maurice Papon, 92, a former top Vichy official convicted of deporting about 1,600 Jews to Nazi death camps.

Papon walked out of the La Sante prison here after an appellate court ruled that coronary ailments entitled him to benefit from a law mandating the release of gravely ill inmates. He had been serving a 10-year sentence handed down in 1998 for crimes against humanity.

The decision enraged relatives of his victims and other veterans of a 17-year battle to punish a defiant, emblematic figure who steadily accumulated power after the war, rising to become France's budget minister in 1978. Papon used political connections to resist prosecution, steadfastly denied guilt and even fled briefly to Switzerland after his conviction.

"This man has showed no remorse at all," said Shimon Samuels, director of the Paris office of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, which helped bring Papon to justice. "A court has shown mercy for a man who showed none to his victims.

"This case is important because it tests the collective memory of France as a country of the Resistance versus France as a country of collaborators," Samuels said. "The whole message of the trial has been undercut."

However, others argued that the three-judge panel correctly obeyed a legal reform passed in March to protect old and sick convicts in France's increasingly harsh penitentiaries.

"Any other decision would be based on political, ideological or emotional choices," the newspaper Le Monde declared in an editorial. "The humanity of the law should benefit all. Even Maurice Papon."

Inevitably, the decision revived a still-delicate debate about France's reluctance to confront the sins of the past. Papon was the highest-ranking official of the Vichy government, the French wartime regime that collaborated with Germany, to be convicted of crimes related to the systematic roundup and extermination of Jews during the Nazi occupation.

During his six-month trial, the longest in French history, Papon came to personify the bureaucrat-as-executioner.

As a top police administrator in the Bordeaux region, he signed papers between 1942 and 1944 authorizing the deportation of men, women, children and the elderly, most of whom perished at the Auschwitz death camp. The jury rejected his defense that he tried to spare as many people as he could and that his entry into the French Resistance was a mitigating factor.

That change of sides propelled a stellar postwar career in the government of President Charles de Gaulle. Papon served as a steely police chief of Paris from 1958 to 1967, and then as a conservative legislator before becoming budget minister under former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing.

As former President Francois Mitterrand once admitted publicly, leaders interceded on Papon's behalf in the 1980s to obstruct attempts to prosecute him.

Wednesday's ruling was not Papon's first recent legal victory. In April, a state administrative panel ruled that the government shared blame for his wartime conduct and should provide half of about $720,000 in damages he was ordered to pay victims' relatives.

Despite calls from prominent politicians for Papon's release on humanitarian grounds, President Jacques Chirac rejected three requests for a pardon. That made the decision Wednesday by the judges especially startling. They agreed with Papon's lawyers, who submitted two medical exams asserting that his health and age made him a near-invalid and that continued imprisonment would endanger his life. Papon has had triple bypass surgery and wears a pacemaker.

The judges also rejected an argument by prosecutors that Papon's release would pose a threat to public order.

"His condition is severely incompatible with incarceration," the judges wrote in their verdict, according to French news reports.

Papon did not listen to radio reports of the decision because he thought the appeal had no chance, according to his lawyer.

"He didn't believe it," lawyer Jean-Marc Varaut told reporters. "I told him he was free. He said, 'How did it happen?' "

In response to the release, Serge Klarsfeld, a Nazi-hunter and representative of an association of children of Holocaust victims here, said: "All of those who are old and sick must now be released or this will mean that there is a double standard. The justice system showed today a leniency that contradicts the decision of the jury, which took into account the possibility that Mr. Papon could die in prison."

Israel's Foreign Ministry, which during the past year has expressed concern about anti-Semitism in France, reacted with disappointment.

"A man who committed such grave crimes against the Jewish people and humanity ought to end his days in jail," Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Melchior said.

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