Touvier 'flees to Canada': Nazi-hunters say French collaborator has escaped after being referred for trial

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The Independent Online
A WEEK after a French court sent him for trial for 'crimes against humanity' Paul Touvier, a militia leader under the Vichy regime, has fled France for Canada, according to reports in Paris and Jerusalem.

A senior member of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, which tracks ex-Nazis, speaking in Jerusalem, said his sources had informed him five days ago that Touvier's 'tracks had disappeared three weeks ago'.

Shimon Samuels, director of the centre's European Bureau, said although there was no proof he believed Touvier had made for French-speaking Quebec, where he could easily go into hiding. Mr Samuels was trying to contact sources in Canada last night to obtain more details. 'If he has left, it is for a reason. It is the responsibility of the French authorities to find out,' he said.

The reports were not confirmed by the French authorities and denied outright by Touvier's lawyers, who carefully guard the 78-year-old suspect's whereabouts for fear of assassination attempts.

The timing of the speculation about Touvier's flight was clearly not coincidental. It followed the murder on Tuesday of Rene Bousquet, the former Vichy police chief who was gunned down at his Paris home.

Mr Samuels said he feared Touvier might seek to use the Bousquet case to justify his flight, on the grounds he feared for his life. 'He might use it as a pretext. In fact, his only motivation would be to avoid justice.'

Mr Samuels added: 'We (the Simon Wiesenthal Centre) are the first people to pray for the health of war criminals so they face justice. The killing of Bousquet has cheated justice.'

The French government has been accused by the centre of being reluctant to put on trial those who played a role in the Vichy regime and the persecution of Jews.

Touvier, the first Frenchman to have been charged with crimes against humanity, is accused of being an accomplice in the execution of seven Jewish hostages near Lyons on 29 June 1944.

Mr Samuels said there would be nothing 'illegal' about Touvier's decision to leave France at this stage. Though he faces trial before the end of the year he is not restricted in his movements by the French and still has his passport. 'He has all his civic rights,' Mr Samuels said. 'The question is, whether he will reappear when the judicial process convenes.'