Papon trial jeopardised by judge's Jewish family

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The Independent Online
The trial of Maurice Papon, the Vichy official accused of crimes against humanity, has been thrown into confusion. Should the presiding judge resign because of a tenuous, family connection with a jewish family arrested on Papon's orders? John Lichfield reports.

With the Papon trial already running weeks behind schedule, and tied up in nit-picking arguments, two of the many lawyers involved have detonated a would-be, legal bomb-shell. They have discovered that the presiding judge is distantly related to five of Papon's alleged victims.

The judge, Jean-Louis Castagnede, said that the news had "fallen from the clouds". He has hinted that he intends to carry on regardless. Both the prosecution and defence teams also reject the revelation as vexatious and irrelevant.

The legal father and son team, Serge and Arno Klarsfeld, acting on behalf of relatives of other victims, say the judge should now excuse himself to avoid all possible taint from the trial. But Serge Klarsfeld freely admitted in a press interview yesterday that he wants to see the back of the judge because he regards him as pro-Papon.

It turns out that, after the war, Mr Castagnede's uncle married Estherina Benaim, the only surviving member of a Jewish family arrested on Mr Papon's orders. Ms Benaim's father, mother and three sisters died in Auschwitz. The judge says that he had lost touch with that part of his family and he was entirely unaware of the connection. The Klarsfelds, well-known human-rights lawyers in France, have as good as accused the judge of lying. More legal argument is expected when proceedings resume on Monday.

Mr Papon, 87, is on trial for his role in the arrest of scores of Jews in the Bordeaux area in 1942-3 while he was a senior official working for the pro-Nazi Vichy administration. The trial, which began last October, was supposed to have finished before Christmas. It has been prolonged by Mr Papon's periodic ill-health and the presiding judge's controversial decision to sit for half-days only to relieve the strain on the old man. The Klarsfelds, and others, were also outraged by Mr Castagnede's decision, at the start of the trial, to waive the normal rules and allow Mr Papon to remain out of jail during the proceedings.

There has been some restiveness in the French press recently about the failure of the prosecution convincingly to break down Mr Papon's defence: that he was a powerless bureaucrat, fulfilling orders laid down by the Nazi occupiers of France. "The Germans were the masters," he has repeated over and over.

The prosecution has scored some points. Mr Papon, who had a glittering political career after the war, has been forced to admit that he knew the likely fate of the Jews he ordered rounded up. He has been caught out exaggerating, even lying about, his role in securing the freedom of other Jews.

But in one telling exchange recently, a prosecution lawyer said the nub of the case against him was that he did not "do more". "Is that a crime against humanity?" Papon replied calmly.