Barbie Trial Opens with Two Surprises

The long-awaited trial of Klaus Barbie, the wartime Gestapo chief in Lyon, opened here Monday with two surprises.

Barbie, replying to the first question by the presiding magistrates, identified himself as “Klaus Altmann, a Bolivian businessman.” He admitted that his father’s name was Barbie and that he was born in Bad Godesberg, Germany. Altmann was the alias under which Barbie lived in Bolivia for nearly 40 years until his expulsion in January 1983. Legal experts believe he gave that name in court in furtherance of one of the defense strategies of his lawyer, Jacques Verges.

Verges contends his client cannot be legally tried in France because he was never extradited to this country but taken into French custody when he was forced to leave Bolivia. Verges has used the word “kidnapped.”

The second surprise was the fawning courtesy with which the accused, once known as “the butcher of Lyon,” was treated by the court. The presiding judge addressed him invariably as “Monsier Barbie” or even “sir.”

Again, according to the same experts, the politeness is due to the court’s determination to observe all of the legal niceties to avoid any possible appeal on technical grounds or claim of bias against the defendant. The trial began immediately after the jury of five men and four women was sworn in. The first legal action was rejection by the court of a motion by a lawyer for a Holocaust survivor, one of Barbie’s victims, to reinstate the death sentence imposed on Barbie in absentia by a French court in 1952.

The State Prosecutor opposed the motion on grounds that the war crimes for which Barbie was originally sentenced are covered by the 20-year statute of limitations. The maximum penalty now is life imprisonment.

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