PARIS -- Shortly after Klaus Barbie faced judgment in Lyons last week, a lawyer on the plaintiffs' team was seen sobbing uncontrollably in the arms of a companion. An emotional 15-year campaign had finally brought the former Gestapo enforcer to justice for his crimes against thousands of Jews and resistance militants in World War II.

That the campaign succeeded in a court of law, with juridical procedure carefully observed, has allowed the 40 civil plaintiffs and the French government and people to feel satisfied about their roles in avenging Barbie's victims and the heirs to their sufferings. But it also provided a new forum for some uncomfortable questions about the legality of such a trial and the selectivity of such justice.

Few observers listened to the questions when they were posed by Barbie's lawyers during long courtroom arguments. Many expressed open resentment at his principal lawyer, Jacques Verges, for questioning the propriety of the proceedings. The plaintiffs' top lawyer, Serge Klarsfeld, a widely respected Nazi-hunter, boycotted Verges' summary arguments. Spectators cursed Verges as he left the courtroom. Police had to escort him to safety. To many, Verges' defense itself was somehow evil.

Two main questions were raised by Verges and his assistants, Nabil Bouaita of Algeria and Jean-Martin M'Bemba of the Congo. Was the Barbie trial serving justice at the expense of law? And is such justice equally valid for crimes defined by another race, culture or political system?

Verges has made a career of defending controversial causes from other cultures. In the 1950s, he defended Algerian rebels accused by French authorities of terrorism. Last spring he defended accused Lebanese terrorist Georges Ibrahim Abdullah, who ultimately received a life sentence.

True to his past, Verges defended Barbie as provocatively as possible, calling the trial a "lynching party" after which the plaintiffs would "strut around in Israel." At one point, he argued that the Nazis' SS elite had in effect protected Jews from persecution by the regular German Army occupying France.

Inevitably, such tactics tended to eclipse the serious questions Verges tried to raise. Yet the questions remain.

Barbie's guilt or innocence is not at issue. French tribunals convicted him of war crimes and sentenced him to death in 1952 and again in 1954. And anyone who listened to the aged Lyons witnesses tell of their sufferings at Barbie's hands would find it hard to believe he was not guilty of something terrible.

But bringing Barbie to trial for deeds legally defined as crimes two Edward Cody is The Washington Post's Paris correspondent. decades after they were committed seems to rest on politics as much as law. The idea of retroactive law for such crimes, in fact, has been questioned in the United States and elsewhere. It came under special scrutiny during the postwar Nuremberg trials, when 11 Nazis were convicted of war crimes and hanged, and in the Adolf Eichmann case, in which the former head of the Gestapo's Jewish-affairs section was kidnaped from Argentina, taken to Israel for trial and then convicted and executed.

Sen. Robert A. Taft called the Nuremberg proceedings "an outrage on justice" and Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone branded them a "lynching expedition." In 1960, The Washington Post editorialized that the Eichmann trial was "a mockery of law," in part because he was taken to Israel in violation of the law and in part because he stood accused of crimes defined by a state that did not exist when they were committed.

Because most people focused on the evil of the Nazis on trial, such objections represented a minority view even at the time, but they made a point worth considering then, and in the light of Barbie's trial, perhaps they still do.

As Taft wrote in 1946, "I believe most Americans view with discomfort the war trials which have just been concluded in Germany and are proceeding in Japan. They violate that fundamental principle of American law that a man cannot be tried under an ex post facto statute." On July 4, shortly after midnight, Barbie was convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to life in prison under precisely such an ex post facto statute. It was enacted by the French parliament in 1964, when Barbie's death sentences became void because of a 20-year statute of limitations on the law under which Barbie had been convicted.

Ironically, Barbie escaped punishment for the convictions because the U.S. Counter Intelligence Corps -- for which he had worked after the war -- gave him safe conduct out of Europe in 1951. The U.S. government continued to keep silent about his hideout in Bolivia for 30 years, until well after he was denounced by Klarsfeld and his wife Beate.

Barbie's removal to France also cut the corners of law and diplomatic practice. Although he was not kidnaped in secret like Eichmann, Barbie was never legally extradited from Bolivia. The Bolivian government, in fact, had turned down an extradition request in 1974 from President Georges Pompidou.

Barbie nevertheless was flown from La Paz to French Guyana in 1983 through the efforts of Gustavo Sanchez, a recently named deputy interior minister. As an opposition activist 10 years earlier, Sanchez had been paid by Klarsfeld to kidnap the fugutive Nazi.

According to a charge by Verges never refuted by the French government, Bolivian authorities also received cash, a shipment of flour and a load of submachine guns in return for their cooperation. The Bolivian court empowered to rule on extradition requests, including Barbie's, was not consulted. Another Bolivian court will rule later this year on the legality of Barbie's forced departure. But there is little doubt here that the Barbie verdict will stand, no matter what the Bolivian courts decide.

The Lyons court handed down its decision in the name of France and the thousands of Frenchmen and Jews who suffered under Barbie personally or the Nazi system he was part of. Against that consideration, the rules in Bolivia appear secondary.

But here arises Verges' second question: What if other nations and other cultures applied the same standards to avenge what they consider wrongs committed against them? What if, for example, Vietnamese agents abducted former lieutenant William Calley and took him back to Vietnam to stand trial for the Mylai killings as crimes against humanity?

Asking the question does not suggest what the United States did in Vietnam compares to what the Nazis did in Europe, or that what Calley did at Mylai compares to what Barbie did at Lyons. Moreover, the United States tried and convicted Calley for his deeds. But it does suggest that seeking justice and avenging deaths may seem just as important to some Vietnamese as it did to France and Jewish groups in the Barbie case. Similar questions were raised during the Barbie trial about Palestinians, Africans and Australian aborigines. Given the lawyers' political orientation, they avoided raising questions about Afghanis under Soviet napalm attack, but they could have.

As far-fetched as these questions might seem, a leading French intellectual remarked with chagrin that for much of the Third World the European experience in World War II, including the Holocaust, does not have the overwhelming and unique dimensions it has in Europe and the United States. Many Third World nations, from Cambodia to Nigeria, have memories of their own bloody episodes, including self-inflicted ones, that seem to them, rightly or wrongly, just as horrendous as anything the Europeans went through.

M'Bemba, Verges' Congolese assistant, contended that even today South Africa's apartheid policies fulfill perfectly the definition of crimes against humanity for which Barbie was convicted. In the same vein, concentrating on one people's cruelties against another, Bouaita suggested that Palestinians have a right to demand punishment of Israelis who ordered or carried out bombing attacks on refugee camps.

"It is impossible to judge the crimes of yesterday without judging the crimes of today," M'Bemba said. "Or are there superior crimes and inferior crimes?"