Alois Brunner, a twice-convicted Nazi mass murderer, will be tried a third time for crimes against humanity in a French court next year, a French judge said today. It seemed unlikely, however, that the defendant will be on hand for the trial.
Brunner, an Austrian-born SS officer and early apostle of Nazism, was the wartime private secretary to Adolf Eichmann--a key figure in the Nazi campaign to exterminate Jews, who was executed in Israel in 1962. Brunner is believed to have personally organized and ordered the deportation of 130,000 Jews, from France and elsewhere, to Nazi death camps in Germany and Poland.
The French government has been pressing Syria to extradite Brunner, 87, who is reported to be living in Damascus under an assumed name. But a French investigating magistrate, Herve Stephan, concluded a 12-year investigation today by ruling that a trial in the Court of Assizes should proceed in absentia. An appeals panel must confirm the decision.
The trial, when it gets under way next year, probably would be the last major Nazi war crimes trial. Brunner was convicted by a French military court twice on similar charges in 1954, also in absentia, and sentenced to death--a punishment no longer permissible in France.
But after an exhaustive investigation by a succession of independent French magistrates, Stephan recommended to prosecutors in March that a new trial be conducted based on evidence about two convoys of deported French Jews, including more than 200 children, in the closing weeks of World War II.
The Paris prosecutor's office agreed at the end of July, and Stephan formally signed the order today. France was occupied in part by German forces after the French surrender in 1940, but much of the country was administered by the puppet government of Philippe Petain in the city of Vichy.
In a historic declaration of contrition in 1995, President Jacques Chirac conceded that the French state had collaborated with the Nazis in the deportation and deaths of more than 70,000 French citizens who were Jewish. Evidence presented at the Brunner trial is likely to shed more unwanted light on the collaborative role of French police and informers. Brunner ran the Drancy concentration camp near Paris in 1943 and 1944, using it as a way-station to the gas chambers for more than 25,000 French men, women and children.
The decision to put Brunner on trial is a victory for France's leading Nazi-hunter, Paris lawyer Serge Klarsfeld, whose parents were deported from France on Brunner's orders and died at the Auschwitz death camp in Poland. "Brunner is untouchable [in Syria]," Klarsfeld told the Reuters news service today. "But the trial will still have particular symbolic value because it will demonstrate that France has not forgotten the crimes he committed."
Syrian President Hafez Assad reportedly has told Chirac and other Western leaders that he knows nothing of Brunner's whereabouts. But Klarsfeld has traveled four times to Syria since the 1970s in an effort to flush Brunner out and says he even got Brunner on the phone once. He says Brunner is not dead, as his daughter has claimed, but lives under the name of Georg Fischer at 7, rue Georges Haddad in Damascus.
CAPTION: Undated photo shows Austrian-born Alois Brunner as an SS lieutenant.