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Vichy War Criminal Flees France to Avoid Jail
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, October 20, 1999; 11:18 a.m. EDT
PARIS, Oct. 20 — Former French official Maurice Papon, convicted last year of organizing the deportation of Jews to Nazi death camps during World War II, has apparently fled the country rather than go to jail.
French authorities today are preparing international arrest warrants for Papon, 89, who has a date in a Bordeaux courtroom tomorrow morning to hear a ruling on his appeals for clemency. He faces a 10-year prison sentence for complicity in crimes against humanity.
Until Thursday morning, despite his conviction, Papon's self-proclaimed "exile" to an unknown country is legal – although highly embarrassing to the French government. If he does not appear, he will become a wanted man.
Papon's lawyers said he left his home near Paris with his wife a little more than a week ago, and would not disclose his whereabouts.
The former Vichy official, who later served as Paris police chief and France's budget minister, declared in an open letter to a French regional newspaper, Sud-Ouest, that he would not "beg for my liberty."
In a statement issued through his lawyers, Papon said he had chosen "the only honorable response" to what he claims is a politically motivated judicial process – "exile, as painful as it might be for a man in his 90th year."
A French government spokesman, Daniel Vaillant, said that if Papon does not show up for his court appearance, "he will be apprehended wherever he is and taken to the penitentiary where he will serve his sentence."
One of Papon's lawyers, Francis Vuillemin, said on French television today, "It's true he exposes himself to certain risks" by fleeing, adding "that was his decision."
Papon's legal team protests their client's obligation to spend the night in jail on the eve of the hearing while still a free man. He was released from brief confinement at the outset of his trial in late 1997 for health reasons.
The civil parties to the Papon case, representing the survivors of some 1,500 French Jews who were boarded on freight cars from 1942 to 1944 and sent to Nazi crematoriums, were outraged by Papon's flight.
Gerard Boulanger, who represented some of the victims' families, said Papon was showing a characteristic "technocratic contempt" for French justice. He suggested that Papon would turn up in London to "play cards with [Augusto] Pinochet," the former Chilean leader who is facing extradition from Britain to Spain on 25-year-old criminal charges in Chile.
Serge Klarsfeld, France's best known Nazi hunter, said Papon's flight from justice was no surprise and that he had warned the French government of its likelihood only recently.
Therese Stopnicki, whose sisters were shipped to Auschwitz under Papon's orders, told the Associated Press: "During the war, French authorities showed absolutely no sign of laxity or incompetence when it came to arresting French children. But now, it seems, they have let him get away."
Papon was the second-ranking official in the city of Bordeaux under the puppet wartime government of France, and as such issued successive orders to round up French Jews for deportation. He claimed in his six-month trial that he had been unaware of their destination, and had helped to save other French Jews in Bordeaux as a secret member of the French Resistance.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company