PARIS (Feb. 3)
The war crimes case against accused Nazi collaborator Maurice Papon appeared open and shut at the start of his trial.
But what once seemed simple has become complex, making the verdict increasingly unpredictable with each day of proceedings.
The 4-month-old trial has visibly exasperated the media — and some lawyers fear it could have the same effect on the jurors.
“I am afraid that public opinion may change,” said lawyer Gerard Boulanger, who launched the first suit against Papon in 1981. “The exasperation could become so great that it would cause the jury to revolt. That would be catastrophic.”
The numerous postponements sought by the 87-year-old Papon because of complaints of ill health have contributed to the slow pace of the trial.
These delays were so frequent at the start of the trial that lawyers for Holocaust victims and their families accused Papon last November of using his health as an excuse to delay the trial.
The trial encountered another difficulty last week, when a prosecution lawyer dropped a bombshell that could have derailed the proceedings entirely.
Arno Klarsfeld, son of famed Nazi-hunter Serge Klarsfeld, called for the presiding judge to remove himself because of a conflict of interest, saying he was related to Jews whom Papon allegedly had deported from the southwestern city of Bordeaux during the wartime Vichy regime and later perished at Auschwitz.
Part of the reason behind Klarsfeld’s call was the fear that if he had not revealed the family link, the defense would do so to discredit a conviction.
But Klarsfeld himself admitted that the move was also motivated by a personal vendetta against Judge Jean-Louis Castagnede, who has allowed Papon to go free for the duration of the trial instead of keeping him in prison, as is customary in France, or under surveillance in a hospital.
The public prosecutor, as well as the other lawyers for the civil plaintiffs, denounced Klarsfeld’s motion and France’s umbrella group for Jewish secular groups, the CRIF, asked him to back off.
In a sharp turnaround Monday, Klarsfeld withdrew his motion calling for the judge to step down — a move that brought evident relief to those who did not want to see the already drawn-out trial thrown into further disarray.
But beyond Papon’s health claims and the abortive move by Klarsfeld, the proceedings — which opened Oct. 8 and initially were scheduled to end Dec. 23 — have also been extended by lengthy testimony from historians and witnesses, as well as by a painstaking analysis of the hierarchy of the Bordeaux prefect’s office, where Papon was the second-highest-ranking official and acted as supervisor of the Office for Jewish Questions during the Nazi occupation.
A Paris police chief and budget minister after the war, Papon went on trial on accusations that he ordered the arrest of 1,560 Jews, 223 of them children, for deportation to death camps between 1942 and 1944.
Papon denies the charges against him, saying he was a powerless underling who spent the war saving Jewish lives.
Now, even those who had been fervently in favor of the trial have voiced their disappointment.
“Poorly prepared, poorly organized and above all, poorly explained, the Papon trial is in danger of becoming a disaster,” Jewish writer Marek Halter recently wrote in an opinion piece in the French daily Liberation.
The worst blow came from the widely read news magazine l’Express, which described the trial in an article last week as rambling and aimless.
“This artificial dragging out not only creates boredom, but it stresses the shortcomings and irregularities of the proceedings,” the article said, blaming the delay on the exhaustive and “repetitive” cross-examinations of the 18 lawyers representing the civil plaintiffs.
The day after the l’Express article appeared, Castagnede summoned the lawyers from both sides to a meeting and ordered them to speed up the proceedings, saying he would also require witnesses to be more concise.
Many observers blame the delays on Castagnede himself for allowing witnesses to ramble endlessly and failing to impose discipline on the proceedings.
While Castagnede’s directive to the lawyers may help create order and accelerate the daily arguments, much of the damage may have already been done.
Boulanger, the lawyer who launched the 1981 trial against Papon, voiced the fear that the evidence against Papon — documents from the prefect’s office concerning the roundup and transport of Jews — has become lost amid the months of interrogation and testimony by some 50 witnesses.
Another 50 are expected to take the stand.
“The arguments have been diluted. We have gone too far off the track. The main obstacle we must imperatively surmount is the slow pace of the debates,” he said.
One critic said that the trial was destroying all the soul-searching France had done to come to terms with its collaborationist past.
“All the historical, pedagogical and cultural work accomplished during the last 20 years is being smashed to pieces,” said Maurice Szafran, editor of the weekly magazine Marianne.
Papon is the highest, and undoubtedly the last, French official to go on trial for crimes against humanity.
Legal action was first taken against him 16 years ago, but was repeatedly obstructed by the administration of late President Francois Mitterrand, who was reluctant to see the painful aspects of France’s past dragged out for re- examination.