Touvier convicted and sent to jail for life

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PAUL TOUVIER, the first Frenchman to be tried for crimes against humanity for his role as a Second World War militiaman, was sentenced to life imprisonment early today.

Touvier, 79, who hid from justice until police seized him in the grounds of a fundamentalist Catholic monastery in Nice in 1989, was given the maximum sentence at the end of a five-week trial shortly after midnight at the Versailles assize court. The 12-member jury, few of whom were born at the end of the war, rejected pleas by Touvier's lawyers that the charge of crimes against humanity could not be applied in his case or that he and his family had already suffered enough. In the trial, only the murder of seven Jews in a Lyons suburb on 29 June 1944, a fraction of Touvier's war-time behaviour, was admitted as covered by the crimes against humanity charge.

The trial followed that of Klaus Barbie, the former Nazi police officer in Lyons, who was sentenced to life in the city in 1987 on the same charge. One other surviving Frenchman, Maurice Papon, a former budget minister in the 1970s, stands charged under the same article for his alleged role in the deportation of Jews from the Bordeaux area.

Rene Bousquet, the Vichy police chief, who also faced the same charge, was shot dead at his Paris flat last June.

Yesterday Touvier, wearing the same green jacket he had worn since the beginning of the five-week trial, listened to his defence without any apparent emotion. Telling the jury 'you are going to put a full stop. You are going to say no,' Mr Jacques Tremolet de Villers, the main defence counsel, argued that, with evidence vague and contradictory after 50 years, Touvier's complicity could not be proven and that, in any case, the murders at Rillieux-la-Pape did not fulfil the conditions for a crime against humanity.

The charge, which is the only one in the French criminal code that does not carry a statute of limitations, requires proof of participation in a policy of genocide, meaning that individual atrocities do not count. Earlier, Hubert de Touzalin, the prosecutor, had argued that 'the plan was Nazi, the complicity was French'. The seven Jews, all prisoners in the hands of the militia, were killed in reprisal for the assassination of Philippe Henriot, the secretary of state for information in the collaborationist Vichy regime.

Touvier argued that he had in fact saved lives because the Nazis had at first wanted 100 executions. The number then dropped to 30 and, once the first seven had been shot against a cemetery wall, that series of reprisals stopped.

Mr de Touzalin rejected Touvier's assertion that he had not been involved in all the decisions leading to the Rillieux deaths. 'Not so]' the prosecutor said. 'We have seen that he followed all the preparations step by step all the afternoon and into the early hours of the morning. He is in charge. He's a boss. Touvier is lying.'

Another court, overturning a Paris appeals court ruling in 1992 that Touvier should not stand trial, last year singled out the Rillieux killings as the only ones in a series of atrocities of which he was accused that fulfilled the conditions to be regarded as crimes against humanity.

As in the trial of Barbie, tried on the same charge in 1987, Resistance and Jewish organisations predicted that the Touvier trial would also be a trial of Vichy France or even of France itself.

In the event, it has been far from that, given that most of the facts debated were known long before. Even the role of the Catholic clergy who shielded Touvier, who hid in monasteries in France and Italy for 45 years, got little attention in court.