Papon verdict evokes mixture of relief and bitterness

The mixed verdict left many in the courtroom — including lawyers for the prosecution and defense, and some relatives of Jews deported from France during World War II — far from satisfied.

The sentence "leaves behind a certain bitterness," CRIF, the umbrella group of secular French Jewish organizations, announced in a statement.

Many expressed concern that because of Papon's age and the appeals process, he might never spend a day in jail.

CRIF and other French Jewish organizations applauded the guilty verdict against Papon, 87, but they were clearly expecting a harsher sentence.

The Jewish Student Union of France said the jury, attempting not to disappoint anyone, managed to disappoint everyone.

The group said it "deplores the inadequate link between the crimes he is accused of and the sentence he got."

Papon went on trial in October on charges of ordering the arrest of 1,560 Jews, 223 of them children, between 1942 and 1944, when he was secretary-general of the Bordeaux prefect's office and head of its Jewish affairs office.

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

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 Nazi occupiers.

French Jewish groups and the lawyers for the civil plaintiffs in the case had expected a life sentence — the legal norm in France for crimes against humanity.

In its verdict, the jury of nine civilians and three judges said Papon was guilty on the charges of arrest and illegal deportation of some of the Jews deported from the Bordeaux region.

But the jury did not convict him of complicity to murder, accepting the defense argument that Papon was not aware of Hitler's Final Solution plan to exterminate the Jews.

One of the civil plaintiffs' lawyers, Alain Levy, charged that Papon's lawyer had misled the jury by saying in his closing argument that Papon could not be convicted as an accomplice to murder if he hadn't known of the Final Solution.

Levy had argued during the trial that Papon knew the deportees would be led to their deaths, even if he did not know the full dimensions of the Nazi genocide.

Indeed, Papon had admitted during the trial that children taken out of hiding and deported from Bordeaux during the war would meet a "cruel fate."

At the postwar Nuremberg Trials, where the definition of crimes against humanity was established, the judges said the mere knowledge that Jews were going to their deaths established the guilt of those involved.

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

For his part, Papon, who was hospitalized several times during the course of the trial, showed no emotion when the verdict was read.

In a final statement to the jury, Papon said, "The accusations are false and this trial is a fake."

Relatives of some of the victims gasped when the verdict was read and they heard that Papon had been absolved of the deportees' deaths.

But some expressed relief.

"For a man of such standing, a man with such a high idea of himself, you can't say this is nothing," said Michel Slitinsky, a plaintiff in the case who brought the first charges against Papon in 1981 and whose father was among those rounded up by Papon's police.

While many believed the sentence should have been greater, the symbolism of the verdict was important.

"The symbolic conviction shows the French people consider the Vichy government and its civil servants to be fully responsible for the deportation of France's Jews," said CRIF, the French Jewish group.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center in Israel expressed the view of many when it said, "This conviction reinforces the important principle that there can be no statute of limitations on the crimes of the Holocaust."