All eyes were fixed on the wasted, bowed figure in a baggy suit who spoke from the dock. In a quavering voice, he denied that he had committed crimes against humanity by shipping Jews and French Resistance fighters to concentration camps. “It was the war,” he said, “and the war is over.” But Klaus Barbie’s last-minute defence against charges stemming from his wartime career as Gestapo boss in the French city of Lyons failed to impress nine jurors and three magistrates who had listened to the grisly testimony of many of his surviving victims. Early Saturday morning, the court found the 73-year-old Barbie—who was extradited to France from his Bolivian hideout in 1983— guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced him to life imprisonment.
Saturday’s verdict—which was applauded by court spectators—ended a dramatic eightweek trial that gripped France.
More than 100 prosecution witnesses stepped forward to describe Barbie’s reign of terror between 1942 and 1944 in Lyons—the hub of French resistance to Nazi rule. The case against Barbie focused on specific charges that he organized the deportation of 842 Jews and Resistance fighters to German concentration camps—including 44 Jewish children from a foster home at Izieu in 1944. But harrowing testimony in the city’s Assize Court made it clear that the so-called Butcher of Lyons had played a major role in subjecting up to 14,000 people to arrest, torture or execution. Still, Barbie— twice sentenced to death in absentia by French military courts in the 1950s—did not have to answer for the bulk of his misdeeds because they fell under France’s 20-year statute of limitations on war crimes.
Boycotting his own trial on the grounds that he had been illegally extradited to France,
Barbie appeared just six times in the packed courtroom. Still, the testimony by his victims was among the most devastating ever heard in a French court on events during the German occupation of France between 1940 and 1944. Prompted by 39 lawyers representing civil plaintiffs, survivors related in sick-
ening detail how Barbie repeatedly dragged them from their cells to undergo interrogation in water-filled bathtubs or under whip and electric shock, frequently breaking off the sessions to stroke a cat or play the piano.
Barbie’s 62-year-old lawyer, Jacques Vergés, who was spat upon and booed as
he left the courtroom after the verdict, had vowed to turn the landmark case into an indictment of French collaboration with the Nazis. He also pledged to tarnish the reputation of France’s Resistance movement by revealing that turncoats in its ranks had betrayed famed Resistance chief Jean Moulin to Barbie.
But what Vergés had termed “explosive evidence” turned out to be a bluff. When he examined Raymond Aubrac, a former Resistance fighter whom he had earlier accused of involvement in Moulin’s arrest, Vergés failed to pose a single question about Moulin.
The lawyer’s assaults on French collaboration were also blunted when presiding Judge André Cerdini continually instructed Vergés not to digress from the official charges against Barbie. But in his three-day summation before the verdict, Vergés did manage to fulfil another pre-trial aim. He angered many French people when he compared Barbie’s crimes with the unpunished atrocities of the French army during the Algerian war.
Vergés also cast doubt on the validity of the Lyons trial by pointing out that crimes against humanity did not enter French legal codes until 1964 and that trying Barbie for them violated the basic principle that laws cannot be applied retroactively. But instead of dominating the debate, Vergés was oddly subdued and took a back seat to state prosecutor Pierre Truche, 58, who demanded a life sentence. Claiming that Barbie remained a committed Nazi who had shown no mercy to his prisoners, Truche declared, “Only the victims —those who were marked forever and the children deported to their deaths in the gas chamber—have the right to ask the court to show mercy.”
But Truche added a deeper I meaning to the Barbie trial by È arguing that it was a “historic I necessity, a moral requisite” 1 which offered France’s youth I an insight into the workings ° of tyranny. And young people 1 did in fact seek that insight. At the trial’s outset on May 11, the public benches were filled mostly by the middleaged and elderly. But when the Butcher of Lyons entered court last week to hear his fate, most in the audience were youngsters under 20—anxious to see today’s justice done for the crimes of yesterday.
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