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Nazi Helper Not First Freed by Law

September 20, 2002

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PARIS (AP) _ Convicted for helping send Jews to Nazi death camps, Maurice Papon was the most notorious prisoner released under a new French law that grants freedom on health grounds. But he was not the first, nor _ many hope _ will he be the last.

The sight of the 92-year-old heart patient walking unassisted from Paris’ La Sante prison Wednesday _ four hours after a court ruled he was bedridden and ``practically completely lacking in mobility″ _ prompted howls of protest and renewed debate over the law that freed him.

French prison authorities said Papon was the ninth prisoner released under the law, which was adopted in March to show compassion for sick and elderly prisoners and respond to concerns the overcrowded prison system cannot adequately care for them. Authorities declined to provide details on the other eight released prisoners.

Three people older than 90 are still in French jails, as well as 39 prisoners between 80 and 90, and 379 aged 70 to 80, prison officials said Friday.

Under the hotly debated law, prisoners can be released if two independent doctors certify they are unfit for jail. The law does not specify a minimum age.

Francis Bes of the International Prison Observatory, a Paris-based group that defends the rights of detainees, said he knew of at least six more prisoners with terminal cancer who could be freed.

When asked about Papon’s release, Bes said: ``The law must not only apply to him, but to all other detainees who are old, ill or handicapped.″

``The problem is that prisons in France are unable to properly look after old and sick people,″ he said. Only one French jail has a hospital within its walls and medical care in most is provided on an ad hoc basis, he added.

Bes said one of the freed prisoners was an HIV-positive 54-year-old who also suffered from neurological damage. Bes refused to say what he was convicted of, but said he was released in May, two years into an eight-year sentence.

Others, however, called for Papon to be put back in jail, and even the author of the law said he had mixed emotions about his release.

``I have a tendency to say: let’s be more generous toward the accomplices of assassins than they were to their victims,″ former Health Minister Bernard Kouchner said in a newspaper interview.

``On the other hand, the decision upsets me,″ he said. ``The imprisonment of Maurice Papon was a deterrent.″

Nearly 300 people protested Papon’s release outside a Bordeaux synagogue Friday under a banner that urged French authorities to ``respect the popular verdict″ and return him to prison.

``Papon never expressed regret,″ said Rabbi Claude Maman. The protest was organized by victims’ families and Jewish groups.

Doctors who examined Papon, who has a history of heart problems, said he was bedridden and ``practically completely lacking in mobility.″ But he walked out of prison unassisted and climbed into a car that drove him home.

Victims of France’s Nazi occupation in World War II, their families and others who opposed Papon’s release said he should have served out his 10-year sentence, even if that meant him dying in prison. Papon had served less than three years.

Papon was convicted in 1998 for signing orders that led to the deportation of 1,690 Jews from the southwestern region of Bordeaux from 1942-44. Most died in Auschwitz. Papon was second-in-command of the Bordeaux region for the wartime Vichy regime that collaborated with the Nazis.

The French government is seeking to overturn the appeal court’s decision that freed Papon.

Judicial officials said Paris prosecutors on Friday filed an appeal against the decision with the Court of Cassation, France’s highest court.

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