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Behind the Headlines: French Nazi Collaborator Caught, but Many Wonder Who Helped Him

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 last week before a Supreme Court appeals hearing, which 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.

At the beginning of his trial in Bordeaux in October 1997, a 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 on Oct. 10, 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.

A number of measures could have been taken to avoid his flight. Months before his initial trial, Nazi-hunter Serge Klarsfeld asked the Justice Ministry to confiscate Papon’s passport.

But because of Papon’s age and the high positions he had held in postwar France — Paris police chief and budget minister — 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.

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 helicoptered 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.

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