Maurice Papon, the 89-year-old fugitive Frenchman fleeing a prison sentence for crimes against humanity committed during the Holocaust, was arrested in the Swiss ski resort of Gstaad, expelled from the country and turned over to French police late this afternoon.
Papon, convicted in 1998 of allowing Jews to be deported from France to the Auschwitz death camp when he was a regional official with the collaborationist Vichy government, arrived by helicopter at a prison in Fresnes, outside Paris, tonight.
Papon's arrest and expulsion after 11 days of evading justice ends an 18-year legal saga. The drama was poignant both for France and, today, Switzerland.
The arrest and quick expulsion of Papon gave Switzerland a chance to improve its international image for harboring wealthy individuals of questionable reputations.
Swiss Justice Minister Ruth Metzler said in Bern, the capital, that a special session of the Swiss legislature and a meeting of the federal council had taken extraordinary procedural measures to get Papon off Swiss soil as soon as possible. "Switzerland cannot and will not shelter someone convicted of crimes against humanity," Metzler said.
For France, Papon's imprisonment is another step in acknowledging this nation's collaborationist past, though his brief escape as his prison sentence approached tarnished the achievement. Papon said in a letter released Wednesday that he was choosing "exile" because it was the only course with "honor."
After years of procedure and delay, Papon, the secretary general for the Bordeaux prefecture during World War II, was convicted in April 1998 and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Evidence showed he had signed deportation orders that sent at least 1,590 Jews from France into the hands of the Nazis. Few returned.
But while Papon's appeal was pending he was not placed in custody or under judicial surveillance, and his passport was not revoked. His only police guard was protective, and he apparently drove right by them when he fled his home in the Paris suburbs on Oct. 11. His whereabouts were unknown until he surfaced in Switzerland Wednesday.
Papon registered at a Gstaad hotel using the last name of de la Rochefoucauld, the name of a famous French poet. He was carrying three French passports in different names.
The hotel's proprietor told French television that when Swiss police arrived late Thursday they were concerned enough about Papon's heart condition and the possibility of suicide that they enticed him out of his room with a message that he had a fax.
Papon suffered an unnaturally rapid heart rate as he was apprehended, and was hospitalized in Bern today. But his condition was not serious enough to slow his transfer to French judicial authorities.
Papon's traveling police bodyguard was removed, at his request, a year ago. Justice Minister Elisabeth Guigou said she plans to propose legislation to close the legal loopholes that kept Papon out of custody.
Relatives of those who had been deported from France and perished during the Holocaust focused today on the successful end to a long battle. The Papon trial was only one step in a long struggle to force France to confront its collaborationist history with as much fervor as it had celebrated the French Resistance.
Papon is an appropriate symbol for that ambiguity. He rose during the postwar period to become Paris's chief of police and, later, France's budget minister. He benefited from the long-held French belief that the war and its victims belonged in the past, not the present. It was not until 1995 that those views began to change.
It is possible that Papon will take his case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. He reportedly saw a lawyer in Geneva to discuss the possibility shortly after leaving France, then moved to the town of Martigny near the French border. Swiss authorities, who late last week learned he was on their soil, asked him to leave and he arrived in Gstaad earlier this week.