Papon guilty of role in sending Jews to their death

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The Independent Online
HISTORY finally caught up yesterday with Maurice Papon, the man who successfully fled his own history for 40 years. The former Vichy bureaucrat was convicted in Bordeaux of "complicity in crimes against humanity" and given a 10-year sentence for his role in the arrest and deportation of French Jews in 1942-44.

Papon, 87, immediately lodged an appeal in French courts and before the European Court of Human Rights. He returned to his home near Paris and it is possible, given his advanced age, that he may never serve a day in jail. It took 16 years to bring him to court and six months to try him.

The appeals procedure is likely to be equally protracted. Jewish organisations and relatives of French Holocaust victims spoke of their "relief" at his conviction but many were disappointed his sentence was not longer. He is the first official of the collaborationist Vichy regime, which ruled from 1940 to 1944, to be tried specifically for involvement in the deportation of Jews.

After retiring for 18 hours, the nine jurors and three magistrates forming the jury found him guilty of some, but not all, the specific allegations.

Papon was acquitted of involvement in the "assassination" of Jews from the Bordeaux area, where he was a senior local official from 1942 to 1944. The jury, in effect, accepted his claim that he knew nothing at that time of the Nazi death camps. He was found guilty of taking part in the illegal arrest and arbitrary detention of Jews dispatched from Bordeaux to Paris in four convoys in 1942 and 1944.

He was acquitted of helping to organise four other convoys. This mixed verdict was enough to convict Papon of the overall charge of complicity in crimes against humanity.

It led the court, however, to impose a sentence of 10 years, half the term requested by the prosecution.

The partial conviction may also provide firm grounds for the appeal. If Papon was not aware of the death camps, or the Final Solution (a doubtful proposition), how can he be complicit in crimes against humanity?

Michel Touzet, a lawyer for the families of victims, said he regretted the court had rejected the assassination charge. None the less, he said, the conviction was of "great importance" considering the "mountain" of legal and political obstructions which had been overcome since Papon's wartime activities in Bordeaux had been uncovered in 1981. By that time, Papon had risen to become budget minister.

The Union of French Jewish Students said it was "profoundly disappointed" by the sentence, which "bore no relation" to the nature of the crime for which Papon was convicted. However, Serge Klarsfeld, a veteran French crusader for justice for Holocaust victims, congratulated the jury on a "courageous decision".

He said it amounted to a condemnation of all those French officials, down to the lowliest gendarme, who had participated in the arrest of Jews. Papon's principal lawyer, Jean-Marc Varaut, dismissed the verdict as "illicit" and a "conspiracy" intended to white-wash the French sense of shame about the Vichy years. "The jury has judged history; history will judge the jurors," he said.