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Convicted Vichy French official flees into exile just before appeal

PARIS, Oct. 20 (JTA) – A French Nazi collaborator appears to be unwilling to spend one night in jail – even if that jeopardizes his appeal before France’s highest court. Maurice Papon, found guilty last year by a Bordeaux court of involvement in deporting Jews and sentenced to 10 years in prison for crimes against humanity, plans to flee into exile rather than spend his last years in jail. Papon, 89, said in a statement issued by his lawyers Wednesday that he would return to his country only after a series of injustices against him had been righted. Papon was supposed to attend an appeal hearing Thursday. Papon’s flight drew strong criticism from a lawyer representing civil plaintiffs in the case. “The masks have fallen off once and for all,” Alain Levy told the Associated Press. “He was certainly better at saving his old skin than saving old Jews from Bordeaux.” According to French law, Papon is required to surrender to police and spend the night before his Supreme Court hearing in jail. If he fails to surrender Wednesday night, his appeal will be automatically rejected – without a hearing – and the Bordeaux prosecutor could order police to hunt him down. Papon was found guilty in April 1998 of helping deport some 1,500 Jews from the southwestern Bordeaux area to Nazi death camps when he was the secretary-general of the regional prefect’s office and supervisor of its Office for Jewish Questions. His lawyer, Jean-Marc Varaut, made it clear last week that he knew exactly where his client was. “Maybe he doesn’t want to be filmed by television cameras, maybe he’s at a museum exhibit, maybe he’s in Bordeaux watching the wine harvest. Maybe he’s even gone into retreat in a Tibetan monastery,” Varaut said. “He’ll show up when we think he should.” But Gerard Boulanger, a lawyer for the civil plaintiffs, fears that Papon will not come, thus creating a pretext to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights. He suspects that Papon is planning to file charges with the European court on the grounds that France’s law stipulating the automatic rejection of an appeal in the defendant’s absence violates his right to a fair trial under the European Human Rights Convention. “One thing is sure. Papon will not turn up. If the European court finds France guilty of violating Article 6 [of the European Convention], it will not reverse Papon’s conviction, but it will discredit his trial,” Boulanger said. “I don’t want Papon to die in his cell at the age of 95, happy that he has had France condemned by the European Court of Human Rights,” he added. Even before Papon went missing, it seemed highly probable that the Supreme Court would turn down his appeal The initial trial, which began in October 1997 and was delayed several times by Papon’s health problems before ending in April 1998, was one of the longest in French history. It included hundreds of witnesses. If Papon does hand himself over to police, he can still hope for a pardon by President Jacques Chirac. But for Chirac, the first postwar French president to acknowledge Vichy France’s role in sending Jews to their deaths, a pardon would be a political risk. In 1972, President Georges Pompidou secretly granted pardon to Paul Touvier, who was intelligence chief of the pro-Nazi militia in Lyon during World War II. When the move became public nearly a year later, it stirred outrage. But at the time, France was only beginning to face its ugly wartime past, and the pardon did not touch the raw nerve that it would today. Touvier was eventually tried for crimes against humanity and sentenced to life in prison in 1994. Other lawyers find it hard to believe that Papon, who went on after the war to become Paris’s longest-serving police chief as well as budget minister, would try and evade the law. “None of the three alternatives correspond to his personality,” said lawyer Alain Jakubowicz, who represents B’nai Brith France in the case against Papon. “Whether it means going into prison and never coming out alive; refusing to surrender and therefore acknowledging that he has no faith in a system he served all his life; or three, committing suicide, which he doesn’t have the courage to do.”