Touvier finally faces trial for war crimes: Julian Nundy in Paris describes the case against the head of a pro-Nazi militia who comes to court today

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Protected by a specially-constructed glass box, Paul Touvier, the first Frenchman on trial for crimes against humanity, goes before an assize court tomorrow for his actitivies as a pro-Nazi militiaman in the Second World War.

Mr Touvier, 78, whose trial in Versailles is expected to last five weeks, is accused of the murder of seven Jewish prisoners, executed at Rillieux-la-Pape near Lyons at 5am on 29 June, 1944.

These killings are a fraction of the crimes for which Resistance fighters hold Mr Touvier responsible. But it is the one instance where the judiciary has ruled that there is enough evidence to bring charges. Under French law the prosecution must show that the defendant willingly took part in a deliberate policy of genocide. As such it is not enough merely to have murdered, tortured or obeyed orders. In other incidents there are not enough surviving witnesses or documents.

Mr Touvier worked with Klaus Barbie, the Nazi police chief of Lyons in the last months of the occupation. Barbie was found guilty of crimes against humanity, the first such case heard in France, in July 1987. He died in a Lyons jail in 1991. When Barbie was tried it was an occasion for much French soul- searching. Liberation, for example, carried daily articles during the two-month trial on life under the occupation and on French collaboration. Despite the fact that a French defendant is on trial, there has so far been less of a hullabaloo, perhaps reflecting a modern acceptance that war crimes should be punished.

Mr Touvier spent 45 years on the run, concealed by Roman Catholic priests and monks. He once tried to cover his tracks with a phoney death notice. He was finally seized from the grounds of a fundamentalist monastery in Nice on 24 May 1989, when Paris police, without informing their local colleagues, landed there by helicopter.

Mr Touvier was twice sentenced to death in absentia in the years after the war. In 1971 he was pardoned by President Georges Pompidou, who said the nation had to 'forget the time when the French did not like each other' and end the debate on collaboration.

Shortly after Mr Touvier reappeared at his home in the Alpine town of Chambery but was soon on the run again. Beate Klarsfeld, the German Nazi-hunter married to Serge Klarsfeld, a French historian who took a law degree to be able to plead at trials of former Nazis, had just found Barbie in Bolivia.

In 1981 Mr Touvier was charged with crimes against humanity, a charge stemming from the 1943 Moscow declaration by the Allies that war criminals would be pursued 'to the uttermost ends of the Earth'. It is the only article under French law with no statute of limitations.

The Touvier case, the subject of six books published in France, including one by Jacques Tremolet de Villers, Mr Touvier's lawyer, proclaiming his innocence, is one that has known an extraordinary number of rebounds.

In April 1992, shortly after the French Roman Catholic Church published a report by a commission of historians on the role of clerics in shielding Mr Touvier, the Paris appeals court ruled that Mr Touvier could not be charged with crimes against humanity because the collaborationist Vichy regime, for which he worked, 'was not totalitarian and did not itself practise a policy of ideological hegemony', effectively allowing that Vichy's anti- Semitism had just been borrowed from Germany.

Some historians argue that Vichy was an innovative and enthusiastic partner of the Nazis, often introducing anti-Jewish measures before the orders arrived from Berlin.

After a public uproar the Versailles appeals court overturned the Paris ruling last year and ordered Mr Touvier to stand trial. By this time Mr Touvier had been released from pre-trial detention because he had cancer of the prostate. At the end of the first day's hearing tomorrow he will automatically be committed to prison until the verdict.

The historians' report on Mr Touvier found that the former militiaman, married illegally in a religious ceremony - in secular France, a religious marriage can only follow a civil ceremony - had been helped by priests who saw him as 'the victim of a conspiracy by the eternal enemies of the true faith: Freemasons, Jews, Communists and democrats'.

It talked of time in Alpine monasteries on both sides of the French- Italian border, where monks would respectfully call their guest 'Monsieur Paul'. For a while, Mr Touvier received a regular pension from Secours Catholique, the Catholic charity .

Three other Frenchmen have been charged with crimes against humanity. Two are dead. The most famous was Rene Bousquet, the Vichy police chief responsible for the round-up of Jews in Paris in 1942 at the Vel d'Hiv stadium. Scarcely any of the 11,848 Jews herded together and deported returned. Bousquet was shot dead by a lone assassin at his home in Paris's 16th arrondissement last year. Bousquet's representative in Paris, Rene Leguay, was also charged but died a natural death.

The other is Maurice Papon, accused of involvement in the deportation of Jews from the Bordeaux region. Papon went on to become Paris police chief in the 1960s - when dozens of Algerians were found dead in Paris after a demonstration against French rule in Algeria. He crowned his public service career by becoming budget minister under President Valery Giscard d'Estaing in the 1970s.

When the Touvier trial opens, one of the 30 lawyers for the civil plaintiffs, the families of the victims, will be Arno Klarsfeld, the 27- year-old son of the Nazi-hunters. The younger Mr Klarsfeld said last week that documents from the period show that the militia executed the seven at Rillieux-la-Pape in reprisal for the assassination of Philippe Henriot, the secretary of state for information in the Vichy government. The executions, he said, were carried out 'within the framework of a general complicity with the Nazis' at Mr Touvier's personal initiative.

(Photograph omitted)