Touvier faces court cameras unfettered: Julian Nundy watched proceedings in Versailles at the start of a historic war-crimes trial

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The Independent Online
PAUL TOUVIER, who evaded justice for his activities as a pro-Nazi militiaman for 45 years, went on trial for crimes against humanity yesterday.

Touvier, 78, became the first Frenchman actually to be tried under the charge, the only one in the French legal code which has no statute of limitations. He faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

The trial in the Yvelines department assize court in Versailles started 30 minutes late, apparently because Touvier, the leader of the Vichy regime's militia in Lyons during the Second World War, asked that photographers and television cameramen, allowed to take courtroom pictures just before the start of trials in France, not photograph him wearing handcuffs.

After Jacques Tremolet de Villers, Touvier's main lawyer, and lawyers representing civil plaintiffs - families of victims and Resistance and Jewish organisations - had discussions with the judge, photographers and cameramen were asked to leave. Then Touvier, in a green suit and red shirt, was brought into the specially built bulletproof glass box. One of his police escorts unlocked his handcuffs and the photographers were allowed back in.

Touvier is accused of murdering seven Jewish prisoners at Rillieux-la-Pape near Lyons on 19 June 1944. Although Resistance and Jewish organisations accuse him of many more crimes - Touvier was sentenced to death in absentia twice after the war - the Versailles appeal court ruled that the killing of the seven was the only case where enough evidence could be assembled to justify a charge which requires proof of a policy of genocide.

The charge was introduced into the French legal code in 1974, three years after President Georges Pompidou, acting on appeals from Catholic churchmen, had pardoned Touvier.

After a public outcry following the pardon, Touvier went back into the hiding from which he had come and, helped by clerics, was not found again until May 1989 when a police helicopter swooped into the grounds of a fundamentalist monastery in Nice to seize him.

Among witnesses listed to be called are Edouard Balladur, the current Gaullist Prime Minister. Mr Balladur was on the staff of President Pompidou at the time of the 1971 pardon and lawyers want to question him on Pompidou's motives. It is not yet clear whether Mr Balladur will agree to testify.

Among other witnesses will be historians to discuss the nature of the Vichy collaborationist regime.

It remains to be seen whether the case, which many Resistance and Jewish organisations would like to see as a trial of Vichy itself, will actually turn into that. Even today, given that some senior officials started their public service careers in occupied France, there is a reluctance to condemn Vichy wholeheartedly.

The four defence lawyers, who include Pierre Touvier, the defendant's 44-year-old son who spent his childhood and youth on the run with his father, objected to three potential jurors, leading to their withdrawal while the prosecution rejected two. Under the Napoleonic system of justice, the three other members of the jury will be the presiding judge, Henri Boulard, and two other judges.