PARIS, Oct. 27 (JTA) — After 18 years of legal maneuvering, convicted Nazi collaborator Maurice Papon is finally behind bars.
But questions persist about the preferential treatment the 89-year-old former Vichy official appeared to have enjoyed.
Swiss police seized Papon late last week in a hotel in the swanky ski resort of Gstaadt and whisked him back to France, where he was taken to a prison hospital.
Papon had fled to Switzerland on Oct. 10, some 10 days before a Supreme Court appeals hearing was held last week that upheld his 10-year prison sentence for crimes against humanity.
He was found guilty of helping deport some 1,500 Jews to Nazi death camps during World War II, when he was supervisor of Bordeaux’s Service for Jewish Questions and the second-ranking official in the area for the pro-Nazi Vichy regime. In the postwar years, he served as Paris police chief and budget minister.
At the beginning of his trial in Bordeaux in October 1997, the presiding judge allowed Papon to remain free during the proceedings in an unusual decision that triggered outrage among the civil plaintiffs — most of them relatives of Jews deported to Nazi death camps.
This is why, even after his conviction, Papon stayed out of prison pending his Supreme Court appeal. When he fled into exile, he was certain he would lose his appeal.
“The question that has to be answered is whether he benefitted from any collusion or help in fleeing,” said Alain Jakubowicz, president of a regional branch of the CRIF, France’s umbrella group for Jewish organizations, and lawyer for B’nai Brith France in the case.
With that very question in mind, French prosecutors are planning to investigate who helped Papon flee to Switzerland.
Under French law, aiding a fugitive can result in a three-year prison term and a heavy fine.
In a related development, the Swiss Foreign Ministry confirmed to JTA on Wednesday that it had received information, two weeks before Papon fled France, that he was going to come across the border to Switzerland.
But the ministry did not act on the information, which came from a former Swiss ambassador to France, Eduard Brunner, who said he got the tip from people close to Papon. A spokesman for the ministry said he did not know why the information had not been turned over to the Swiss border police so that they could have blocked Papon’s entry.
Meanwhile, the London Sunday Times reported this week that Papon’s short-lived flight to freedom in Switzerland was organized by a clandestine network of aging French right-wingers.
One of his most ardent defenders confirmed this week the existence of an underground ring of retired military officers and former Resistance fighters with close ties to conservative Catholic organizations.
The network was reportedly responsible for initial rumors, made in an attempt to throw pursuers off his track, that Papon had fled to Spain.
“There are plenty of people in France and abroad ready to come to his aid,” said Hubert de Beaufort, author of a book on Papon.
They include members of a shadowy group, Resistance, Verite, Souvenir — Resistance, Truth and Remembrance — which police suspect of helping Papon to flee.
Papon’s closest associates reportedly visited him at his villa near Paris earlier this month and urged him to leave France before he was due to enter jail, as is customary in France, on the eve of his appeal.
His supporters, who comprise prominent lawyers and former government ministers, regard Papon as a heroic figure who was made a scapegoat for the Vichy regime’s collaboration during the Nazi occupation.
“He always made a point of cultivating influential people, as if he feared that his past would eventually catch up with him,” said one French journalist who has followed Papon’s career closely.
A French historian who recently interviewed Papon believes he was terrified of going to jail after spending just two days behind bars at the start of his trial.
According to Michel Berges, Papon had complained bitterly about the primitive cells, filthy toilets and terrible food before the presiding judge granted him bail on grounds of age and ill health.
A number of measures could have been taken to avoid Papon’s flight. Months before his initial trial, Nazi-hunter Serge Klarsfeld asked the Justice Ministry to confiscate Papon’s passport.
But Klarsfeld’s demand was ignored.
“The government and the justice system are fully responsible for Papon’s flight out of France. If he had raped a little girl, they would have found some procedural means to prevent him from leaving,” said lawyer Arno Klarsfeld, Serge’s son.
In response to critics who cited the apparent ease with which Papon was able to flee France, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin on Monday defended the French legal system.
“We obey the law to the letter and were highly efficient,” he said.
From the moment the first charges were filed against Papon in 1981, French government officials repeatedly intervened to prevent the case from coming to court and dredging up memories of France’s collaboration with its Nazi occupiers. Papon is the only senior French official to be taken to account for Vichy’s anti-Semitic policies.
When Papon failed to surrender to police on the eve of his appeal last week, the appeal should have been automatically rejected without a hearing, according to French law. Instead, in another surprise move, court president Hector Milleville allowed lawyers from each side to argue the case.
In the end, the appeal was rejected on the grounds of Papon’s absence.
“This case has been one exception after another from beginning to end,” Jakubowicz said at the time.
Immediately after the appeal was thrown out, France issued an international arrest warrant for Papon. Within a few hours, he was arrested. France’s secret service, which now admits that it kept tabs on Papon from the moment he fled, tipped off the Swiss police.
Wishing to avoid a lengthy extradition procedure, Switzerland handed Papon over to French police the following day.
“The implementation of a formal extradition process is not necessary,” Swiss Justice Minister Ruth Metzler told a news conference as Papon was taken by helicopter back to France. “The Cabinet clearly wanted to expel Mr. Papon as quickly as possible.”
Dogged by its own wartime demons for the past few years, the Swiss government did not want to be seen as harboring a war criminal.
Papon began his jail sentence in a prison hospital last Friday after Switzerland turned him over to French officials.
On Sunday there were reports that Papon planned plans to seek a pardon from French President Jacques Chirac on the grounds of his failing health.
But the following day, Papon’s lawyer said the request would be postponed.
Citing his client’s decision to flee France, which he blamed on “bad advice from a few members of his entourage,” the lawyer said “a presidential pardon does not seem to be appropriate for the time being.”
(JTA correspondent Douglas Davis in London contributed to this report.)