PARIS, Oct. 12 (JTA) – In a controversial decision that infuriated the families of Holocaust victims, a French court has decided to free Maurice Papon during his trial for crimes against humanity. “This decision is an insult to the memory of the victims, to the grief of the civil plaintiffs and to the French people in general,” said Arno Klarsfeld, one of 23 lawyers for the civil plaintiffs. The decision means that Papon will not spend his nights in prison or in detention at a hospital during the proceedings. It also means that even if Papon, who is 87 and underwent triple bypass surgery last year, is found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment, he may never serve time in jail because he would probably die before his appeals were exhausted. Presiding Judge Jean-Louis Castagnede told the court last Friday that his decision was due to the defendant’s “old age, the serious worsening of his health” and the more than two months the trial is expected to last. In France, a defendant accused of serious crimes is normally kept in jail during trial. Klarsfeld declared that he would boycott the rest of the trial. “I have decided to leave this trial, where the accused faces no more than simple blame for consciously and deliberately sending Jewish children to the most atrocious fate,” Klarsfeld told the judge before storming out of the courthouse followed by some of his clients. Papon is accused of ordering the arrest and deportation of 1,560 Jews – – including 223 children – between 1942 and 1944, when he was the pro-Nazi Vichy regime’s second-highest-ranking official in the Bordeaux region. Almost all of the deportees died in the Auschwitz gas chambers. Papon has denied the charges against him, saying that he used his position in the Resistance to save Jews. He reportedly joined the Resistance movement near the end of 1943. After the liberation, Papon went on to an illustrious postwar career, serving as police chief of Paris between 1958 and 1967, then as budget minister in the French Cabinet during the 1970s. The court’s decision provoked anger among the families of deportees. “I’m outraged, I don’t understand,” said Juliette Benzazon, a civil plaintiff who lost more than a dozen members of her family in Auschwitz. “For 16 years, we trusted the French justice system.” Legal action against Papon began in 1981 after a newspaper article detailed his past. But proceedings against him were repeatedly obstructed by French officials reluctant to see a trial dredge up embarrassing memories of France’s collaboration with the Nazi occupiers. Papon was rushed to a hospital Oct. 9, a day after the trial began in the southwest city of Bordeaux, after two medical experts who had examined him at the court’s request recommended that he be detained in a hospital because of his heart condition. Papon’s lawyer, Jean-Marc Varaut, who had asked the court at the start of the trial to release his client so he could have access to medical care, said Papon was taken to the hospital because he nearly had a heart attack. But the prosecution said it was merely part of the defense’s strategy to win his release. After the judge announced his decision last Friday, Papon was whisked away under tight security and taken to a four-star luxury hotel in a chateau in one of France’s wine regions– 16 miles from the nearest hospital. Pictures of the dapper former official in charge of Bordeaux’s “Office for Jewish Questions” strolling leisurely through the chateau gardens were broadcast on television throughout the weekend, further infuriating the civil plaintiffs. “Papon Wins the First Round,” read the headlines in the left-wing daily Liberation. Klarsfeld, the son of famed Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld, was not the only lawyer to say he was boycotting the proceedings. Gerard Weltzer, a lawyer representing two families of the Bordeaux deportees, has also decided to stay away from the trial. “The families are shocked and upset by what happened,” Weltzer told French television. Serge Klarsfeld, president of an association of children of Holocaust victims, some of whom are civil plaintiffs in the trial, organized a protest in Paris against the court’s decision. At Sunday’s protest, which drew an estimated 1,000 demonstrators, 1,645 candles were lit in memory of the Jews deported from Bordeaux to Nazi death camps. The ceremony was part of a rush of emotional remembrance of France’s wartime occupation that has been sweeping the country in the days surrounding the trial. The national soul-searching prompted some professional groups to apologize for their conduct during World War II, including France’s principal SNPT police union, which sought forgiveness on the eve of the trial for the role of French policemen in arresting Jews for deportation. “Hear our voices, Hebrew people. Those who committed the ignoble were not only a minority. For them we beg forgiveness,” said SNPT head Andre Lenfant at a ceremony last week attended by French Jewish leaders. “The SNPT recognizes that French police officers were accomplices to the deportation of Jews during the occupation.” The statement came in the wake of a dramatic Sept. 30 apology from the French Roman Catholic Church for its silence during the persecution of Jews in Nazi-occupied France. Last Friday, the French medical association followed suit, asking pardon for the treatment of Jews during the war – when the profession barred Jewish doctors from practicing medicine. “History demands that we recognize that the basic values of our profession were flouted. We regret and disavow with gravity and humility the acts that were at the origin of the tragedy experienced by those of our colleagues and their families who were victims of barbarism,” Bernard Glorion, head of the association, told a news conference. And hours before the trial started, Bordeaux mayor and former Prime Minister Alain Juppe, wearing a white skullcap, joined hundreds of people in the city’s Sephardi synagogue, one of the oldest in France, to pay tribute to the Jews deported from Bordeaux.
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