LYONS, FRANCE, JULY 4 (SATURDAY) -- Klaus Barbie, who escaped his past as a brutal SS officer for four decades, was convicted of crimes against humanity by a French court early today and sentenced to life in prison for his role in Nazi atrocities.
The court, composed of nine civilian jurors and three judges, handed down its ruling after an eight-week trial that many French people had predicted never would be held because of lingering shame over France's conduct during World War II.
Barbie, 73, stood tranquilly as Presiding Judge Andre Cerdini read the verdict and pronounced the sentence, reached in 6 1/2 hours of jury deliberations behind closed doors. Barbie leaned forward and listened intently to his court-appointed interpreter but displayed no sign of emotion as he learned his fate.
A group of spectators at the rear of a special Lyons Assizes Court broke into applause when Cerdini announced the sentence. Barbie's chief defense lawyer, Jacques Verges, pointed toward the spectators in a gesture of disdain.
Serge Klarsfeld, the French lawyer who with his wife Beate tracked down Barbie in his Bolivian hideout, said he was "relieved" by the verdict and described it as a sign that Nazi crimes cannot be "banalized."
In its guilty verdict, the court ignored a last-minute appeal from Barbie. After boycotting his trial since the third day except for two brief identifications, Barbie was forced to attend the last step in proceedings yesterday and given a chance to speak in his own defense before the court retired.
In a tremulous voice, he said in French only slightly accented by his native German: "I did not commit the roundup of Izieu. I never had power to decide on deportations. I fought the resistance, which I respect, with severity. But that was the war, and the war is finished."
The roundup at Izieu, a village near Lyons, was considered the most hateful of crimes attributed to Barbie during his service as a Gestapo lieutenant here from 1942 to 1944. Barbie was convicted of organizing the deportation to Auschwitz of 44 Jewish children and seven teachers from the Izieu children's home in April 1944.
Of the 51 deported, only one teacher survived.
Barbie also was convicted of organizing a roundup of 86 people at the Lyons offices of the General Union of French Jews in February 1943. All but three of the 86 perished at Auschwitz. In addition, he was found guilty of organizing the last deportation train to leave Lyons in August 1944.
He also was convicted of a role in individual tortures, deportations or killings of 38 French resistance activists and 21 Jews.
The guilty verdict and sentence mean that Barbie is condemned to live out the rest of his days in jail. He has been confined in three adjoining cells at St. Joseph Prison here since shortly after being deported from Bolivia in 1983.
Although he underwent a recent prostate operation, court officials have said Barbie's health generally is satisfactory for a man of his age.
French military tribunals already had convicted Barbie of war crimes, in 1952 and 1954, and both times sentenced him to death in absentia. Because of a 20-year statute of limitations, however, the sentences became void before Barbie was discovered living under the alias of Klaus Altmann and deported from Bolivia.
The crimes against humanity he was convicted of today represented fresh charges based on new evidence. Much of it was supplied by Klarsfeld, who also represented civil plaintiffs in the prosecution of Barbie.
Barbie, called the "Butcher of Lyons," fled to Bolivia in 1951 with help from the U.S. Army's Counter Intelligence Corps. According to a U.S. government report, the agency employed Barbie as an intelligence operative in postwar Germany and concealed him from French prosecutors trying to track him down.
In his final arguments yesterday, Verges attacked prosecution documents as forgeries and said much testimony from elderly witnesses was "pious lies."
The jurors responded "yes" to 340 separate questions detailing Barbie's crimes and "no" to a final question of whether there were attenuating circumstances, Cerdini reported.
Barbie has five days to lodge an appeal, a procedure Verges earlier said he plans to follow.
Before the proceedings began, Verges had threatened to put all of France on trial.
Nothing emerged, however, that led to the national recrimination of which Verges and many other French people had warned. To some observers, this suggested that France, a generation after the war, has learned to accept history's gaze on that troubled period.