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Papon Convicted of War Crimes

April 2, 1998 GMT

BORDEAUX, France (AP) _ Maurice Papon, a former official of the pro-Nazi Vichy regime who later rose to be a French Cabinet minister, was convicted Thursday of complicity in crimes against humanity for arresting and deporting Jews during World War II.

A jury of nine civilians and three judges sentenced Papon to 10 years in prison, less than the state prosecutor had asked for. The verdict came 19 hours after the jury began debating 764 questions in the case.

The verdict came after a six-month trial _ the longest in French history _ that meant different things to different people. For some, it was seen as the last chance for France to confront, in a courtroom, its painful past of collaboration with Nazi Germany.

But Papon’s defense stressed that he was an individual, and that an acquittal would not be an acquittal of Vichy. That regime, the defense argued, already has been convicted in the public mind.

The 87-year-old defendant is the most senior Vichy official to face trial for crimes against humanity. He is charged with ordering the arrests and deportations of 1,690 Jews from Bordeaux, while serving as deputy prefect. All but a handful died at Auschwitz.

Papon argued throughout the trial that he was not zealously aiding the Nazis, but was merely a functionary relaying orders from his superior, Maurice Sabatier, now dead.

He also insisted he didn’t know of the Final Solution _ the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jews _ and actually tried to save some Jews.

One of the most difficult issues of the trial was the extent to which a middleman like Papon should be held accountable. The prosecution and 24 civil party lawyers presented him as ``a link in the chain of responsibility″ leading to the deaths of Jews.

Yet they disagreed over how much he should be punished. Prosecutors asked for 20 years; most civil party lawyers had wanted a life sentence.

On Wednesday, addressing the jury for a final time, Papon spoke with defiance and anger, telling the jury that to convict him would humiliate France around the world.

``I say, be careful that France does not get hurt by this verdict outside our borders,″ he said.

``It would be a humiliation for our nation to be linked with Nazi Germany in its responsibility for Jewish genocide.″

And he denied that Vichy France persecuted Jews. ``France should not be accused of this horror just because it took place on her soil,″ he said.

In fact, Papon said, it was only Nazi Germany that should be condemned.

In a 36-minute speech, Papon rarely evoked the victims of the Holocaust, but instead portrayed himself as a victim _ of ``the saddest chapter in French legal history.″

``Sometimes I ask myself, why me?″ he said.

``What should one have done?″ he cried out at another point.

He said the prosecution had distorted the truth and ``cast aside the law to obey higher orders.″

``This is what is called a political trial,″ he said.

Civil party lawyers have said Papon could have resigned as deputy prefect in Bordeaux, if he’d wanted to. But Papon insisted that to resign would have been to give in to fear and weakness.

``Staying in one’s post sometimes takes more courage than resigning,″ he said.

And he said assigning partial responsibility _ the ``link in the chain″ theory _ was ridiculous.

``I am either guilty or innocent!″ he called out. ``It’s all or nothing.″

The defendant was being guarded by 24 elite police officers, and more than 260 national guardsmen were posted around Bordeaux’s courthouse to keep order.

The jury didn’t have to reach a unanimous verdict; eight votes were needed to convict, and five for acquittal. The three judges directed the deliberations and also voted.