Friday, April 30, 2004

Papon's Last Defeat

Last February, convicted war criminal Maurice Papon, 93, sought to have his sentence overturned. In 1998, a court at long last sentenced Papon to ten years in prison for approving the deportation of 1,500 French Jews from la Gironde to their deaths in Nazi concentration camps during the German occupation of France. The AP is now reporting that Papon's request has been turned down. (He is currently a free man after his release on health grounds in 2002.)

His story is a very painful episode in which every error and misstep the authorities committed was compounded over and over again. Following the war, Papon went on to a brilliant career in French public life, becoming minister of Finance and serving for a long time as Paris police commissioner, notably during the generalized outburst of anti-Arab violence that occurred in Paris on October 17, 1961 (and during which the Paris police are alleged by some to have used the very same tactics that they employed in rounding up Jews for deportation — bur more about that another time) and which is rarely ever mentioned publicly.

Papon's past was brought to light on May 6, 1981 by the satirical and investigative news weekly known as Le Canard enchaîné (which is so behind the times, it has no Web portal, just this).

Papon was twice indicted for crimes against humanity in 1983 and again in 1984. His lies about having been a member of the resistance during the war very publicly began to fall apart. In 1987, an investigation into Papon's past was annulled for misconduct and a new one was begun. Papon was again indicted in 1988 for crimes against humanity and the list of "coplaintiffs" continued to grow. In December of 1989, the investigating magistrate assigned to the case, abandoned it and in 1990 another judge (the fourth!) took up the case.

He was indicted again 1992. Meanwhile, in 1993, René Bousquet, another former official with the French police accused of collaborating with the nazis in rounding up Jews, was assassinated the very day before he was due to begin his trial for crimes against humanity.

This last investigation was finally closed in 1995 and the case went to trial in October of 1997. At long last in April 1998, Papon was sentenced to ten years (the prosecution had sought 20) and France's longest-ever post-war prosecution finally came to an end, seriously damaging the Gaullist version of France's anti-German resistance in the process. Papon also lost the civil proceeding against him and was ordered to pay FF 4.6 million.

Rather than face prison, he fled to Switzerland in 1999 pending an appeal of his conviction, which was therefore denied. He was then captured and taken to jail but in 2002, the European Court of Human Rights awarded him €29,192 in legal costs after it ruled in his favor — his lawyers had sued French authorities because, if memory serves, of something known in France as "mise en état," (putting into status, i.e. go to jail) which requires the accused to enter prison before his appeal can be heard. The ruling found that such a procedure was unfair and hindered the accused's access to the courts.

The end result was that Papon was in effect giving lessons in the law to France, the country that had suffered such a colossal failure of nerve in trying to prosecute him in the first place. It was a deeply humiliating spectacle.

He was released from prison that year out of consideration for his deteriorating health.

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