News Analysis: Papon may benefit from extended trial

PARIS — The war crimes case against accused Nazi collaborator Maurice Papon appeared open and shut at the start of his trial. But what once seemed simple has become complex, making the verdict increasingly unpredictable with each day of proceedings.

The 4-month-old trial has visibly exasperated the media — and some lawyers fear it could have the same effect on the jurors.

"I am afraid that public opinion may change," said lawyer Gerard Boulanger, who launched the first suit against Papon in 1981. "The exasperation could become so great that it would cause the jury to revolt. That would be catastrophic."

The numerous postponements sought by the 87-year-old Papon because of complaints regarding ill health have contributed to the trial's slow pace.

These delays were so frequent at the start of the trial that lawyers for Holocaust victims and their families accused Papon of using his health as an excuse to delay the proceedings.

The trial encountered another difficulty last week, when a prosecution lawyer dropped a bombshell that could have derailed matters entirely.

Arno Klarsfeld, son of famed Nazi-hunter Serge Klarsfeld, called for the presiding judge to remove himself because of a conflict of interest, saying the judge was related to Jews whom Papon allegedly had deported from the city of Bordeaux during the wartime Vichy regime. Those Jews later perished at Auschwitz.

Part of the reason behind Klarsfeld's call was the fear that if the judge had not revealed the family link, the defense would do so to discredit a conviction.

But Klarsfeld himself admitted that the move was also motivated by a personal vendetta against Judge Jean-Louis Castagnede, who has allowed Papon to go free for the duration of the trial instead of keeping him in prison — as is customary in France — or under surveillance in a hospital.

The public prosecutor, as well as the other lawyers for the civil plaintiffs, denounced Klarsfeld's motion and France's umbrella group for Jewish secular groups, the CRIF, asked him to back off.

In a sharp turnaround Monday, Klarsfeld withdrew his motion calling for the judge to step down. This was a move that brought evident relief to those unwilling to see the already drawn-out trial thrown into further disarray.

The proceedings opened Oct. 8 and were initially scheduled to end Dec. 23. But beyond Papon's health claims and the abortive move by Klarsfeld, the trial has also been extended by lengthy testimony from historians and witnesses, as well as by a painstaking analysis of the hierarchy of the Bordeaux prefect's office, where Papon was the second-highest-ranking official and supervisor of the Office for Jewish Questions during the Nazi occupation.

A Paris police chief and budget minister after the war, Papon is being tried on accusations that he ordered the arrest of 1,560 Jews, 223 of them children, for deportation to death camps between 1942 and 1944.

Papon denies the charges against him, saying he was a powerless underling who spent the war saving Jewish lives.

Now, even those who had been fervently in favor of the trial have voiced their disappointment.

"Poorly prepared, poorly organized and above all, poorly explained, the Papon trial is in danger of becoming a disaster," Jewish writer Marek Halter recently wrote in an opinion piece in the French daily Liberation.

The worst blow came from the widely read news magazine l'Express, which described the trial in an article last week as rambling and aimless.

"This artificial dragging out not only creates boredom, but it stresses the shortcomings and irregularities of the proceedings," the article said, blaming the delay on the exhaustive and "repetitive" cross-examinations of the 18 lawyers representing the civil plaintiffs.

The day after the l'Express article appeared, Castagnede summoned the lawyers from both sides to a meeting and ordered them to speed up the proceedings, saying he would also require witnesses to be more concise.