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Jewish Groups Blast French Court After Nazi-era War Criminal is Freed

September 19, 2002
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France was accused this week of turning its back on Holocaust victims after a Nazi- era war criminal was released from a French prison.

Maurice Papon was freed Wednesday after an appeals court ruled he was too old and sick to serve out his 10-year sentence.

The decision to free the 92-year-old Nazi collaborator “seemed impossible,” said Michel Slitinsky, who was 17 in 1942, when he narrowly escaped a Papon-ordered roundup of Jews from Bordeaux.

Slitinsky, whose father was arrested in that roundup and died in Auschwitz, told The Associated Press he feared the court’s decision to release Papon would encourage the extreme right in France.

The Anti-Defamation League also lashed out at the court’s decision.

“The excessive leniency of the French court demonstrates a misguided compassion that Maurice Papon does not deserve,” said the ADL’s national director, Abraham Foxman.

“Papon has never expressed regret for sending Jews to their deaths, and has repeatedly thumbed his nose at the French judicial system.”

Papon began serving the sentence in October 1999 after 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.

Nearly all of the Jews deported from Bordeaux died in the Auschwitz gas chambers.

Last year, Papon wrote in a letter to France’s Justice Minister that he felt neither “regrets nor remorse” for his wartime acts.

Papon had triple coronary bypass surgery several years ago and had a pacemaker implanted in January 1999.

Walking with a slight limp, he emerged Wednesday from a small door at Paris’ Sante prison. He smiled briefly at his lawyer before getting into a waiting car, which sped off as a crowd yelled “Murderer” and “Papon in jail.”

Along with the ADL, other Jewish groups lashed out at the decision to free him.

The Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem said the ruling was in “blatant disregard of the suffering he perpetrated on countless Jewish victims.”

The Jerusalem office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center likewise denounced the decision, calling Papon an “arrogant, unrepentant Nazi collaborator who had absolutely no empathy whatsoever for the hundreds of innocent people he sent to death camps.”

According to his lawyer, Jean-Marc Varaut, Papon was as surprised as anyone at his sudden freedom.

Now that he is free, Papon plans to “rest, rebuild his health and spend time with family and friends,” Varaut, who is one of France’s most prominent lawyers, told reporters.

After the liberation, Papon went on to an illustrious postwar career, serving as police chief of Paris between 1958 and 1967 and as budget minister in the French Cabinet during the 1970s.

Papon’s previous position in the French establishment ensured his release, Nazi-hunter Serge Klarsfeld said.

“It’s to do with the establishment. The fact he could have died in jail was something they could not contemplate,” Klarsfeld, a key figure in pushing for Papon’s sentencing, told Reuters Wednesday.

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.

His trial, which began in October 1997 and was delayed several times by Papon’s health problems before ending in April 1998, was one the longest in French postwar history.

The trial included hundreds of witnesses and forced the country to re-examine its role in the wartime Nazi occupation.

In October 1999, Papon fled to Switzerland before France’s Supreme Court upheld his 10-year prison sentence for crimes against humanity.

But Swiss police soon seized Papon in a hotel in the swanky ski resort of Gstaadt and whisked him back to France.

At the beginning of his trial in 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.

Even after his conviction, Papon stayed out of prison pending his Supreme Court appeal.

Though Klarsfeld would have preferred to see Papon serve more time in prison, he said Papon’s conviction was what mattered most.

“Today the meaning of the Papon case is not changed. He can go to the United States, he can marry a Hollywood star, but it will not change the fact that he was sentenced to 10 years by the jury. That’s the most important thing.”

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