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French Court Gives Papon 10 Years for World War II Crimes

By John-Thor Dahlburg
Los Angeles Times

For Maurice-David Matisson, a soft-spoken Jewish veteran of the French Resistance, the quest for justice for eight family members who perished in World War II took 17 long, often frustrating years but bore fruit at 9:12 Thursday morning.

After a trial instigated because of the legal complaints filed by Matisson and aggrieved families of other victims, Maurice Papon, 87, a mid-level functionary in the wartime puppet state of Vichy, was found guilty of having served as an accomplice in "crimes against humanity" and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

The punctilious civil servant, the court ruled, had helped to organize and implement some of the "arbitrary" arrests and detentions of 1,560 Jews in the Bordeaux area. These were the first steps for the Jews in a sorrowful journey by rail cattle cars to a holding camp in northern France and near-certain death in the concentration camps of the Third Reich.

Some of the unwilling passengers were children, some only a year old; others were aged and infirm. Eight were the members of Matisson's family, all of whom died at Auschwitz.

In a moving scene, family members, some sobbing, kissed and embraced each other and their lawyers in a hall outside the courtroom after the verdict was read .

Though there were objections that the 10-year sentence was too light and that Papon had been exonerated of actual responsibility in the deaths of deportees, there was great relief and satisfaction that the jury pronounced him guilty.

"I think now we are going to finally be able to live our grief," said Matisson, 72, a bald, bespectacled psychoanalyst who attended every session of the trial since it opened in October. "Now we can think about our dead in a serene way."

The conviction of Papon - the former No. 2 official in the Bordeaux prefecture, or regional government - marked the first time a functionary of the Vichy state was brought to account specifically for the wartime French leaders' collaboration or connivance in Nazi policies of anti-Semitism.

After the Liberation, Papon went on to serve as prefect of Paris police and then as a Cabinet minister in 1978-81.

Pale and raptly attentive, Papon listened to the verdict as he sat in the defendant's box and laughed bitterly when he heard it included a 10-year ban on voting and running for elective office and the revocation of his red ribbon of the Legion of Honor.

Chief defense counsel Jean-Marc Varaut, who said his client had tried to protect Jews and others in France against the occupying Nazis, denounced the verdict as "condemnable" and said he would appeal the decision.

After meeting throughout the night, the court disappointed many family members of victims, including Matisson, by not implicating Papon in the actual deaths of deportees. In deliberations that took 19 hours, judges and jurors evidently decided the defendant could have known nothing of the vast machine assembled by Nazi Germany that killed 12 million people, including 6 million European Jews.

But according to historians, more Jews in France were arrested by French police than by the Germans. Gerard Boulanger, a lawyer who in December 1981 filed the first complaint on Matisson's behalf, said the jury's decision "means the exact role of Vichy has not been recognized. "

Government prosecutors had sought a prison sentence twice the length of that ultimately given Papon.

Papon, who spent two nights in jail at the start of the trial but was released Oct. 10 on orders of Presiding Judge Jean-Louis Castagnede, returned home Thursday to the greater Paris area and may never see the inside of a cell again. The appeals process could take years, legal experts predicted, and Papon might die before it is complete.

Papon was specifically found guilty of being an accomplice in arrests and detentions involving four rail convoys of Jewish deportees between July 1942 and January 1944. In an equal number of trains for which documents proving his involvement were scanty or nonexistent, he was declared not guilty.