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Protesters Decry Papon’s Release

September 20, 2002

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GRETZ-ARMAINVILLIERS, France (AP) _ Protesters prayed and lit candles outside Maurice Papon’s home on Thursday, and one demonstrator solemnly read the names of Jews the Nazi-era collaborator helped send to death camps.

On Papon’s first full day of freedom, the French government announced that it would seek to overturn Wednesday’s court decision that released him from prison on health grounds, saying the 92-year-old heart patient should have remained behind bars.

About 30 people gathered to protest the release in front of the former French official’s house in the Paris suburbs. A rabbi recited the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, and Patrick Klugman, president of the Union of Jewish Students of France, read the names of Papon’s victims.

One demonstrator who lost her parents during the Holocaust wore a yellow Star of David on her chest.

``Three-month-old children were sent to the ovens because of Mr. Papon,″ 65-year-old Rosina Rosenbron said. Similar demonstrations in Bordeaux and Paris drew hundreds.

The former French official was convicted of complicity in crimes against humanity. As second-in-command of the Bordeaux region for the Vichy regime that collaborated with France’s Nazi occupiers, Papon signed orders that led to the deportation of 1,690 Jews from 1942-1944. Most were sent to Auschwitz.

An appeals court ruled he was too old and sick to remain behind bars. He served less than three years of his 10-year sentence.

A day later, debate raged on over Papon’s health.

In releasing Papon, the court said doctors declared him bedridden and ``practically completely lacking in mobility.″ But just four hours after the ruling, Papon walked unassisted from Paris’ La Sante prison and climbed into a car that drove him to his police-guarded home.

Historian and Nazi-hunter Serge Klarsfeld, who helped produce much of the evidence used at Papon’s 1998 trial and who opposed his release, said no doctor would have dared certify Papon fit for jail, given his age.

``If he says that he’s in good health and he dies suddenly after a few days _ because a man of 92 can die from one day to the next _ then the doctor looks ridiculous,″ Klarsfeld said in a telephone interview. ``So I’m not convinced by this (medical) examination and the best proof of that is he came out on his own two legs.

The Justice Ministry, arguing that Papon’s release was traumatic for the French public and Nazi-era victims, said it was applying to the Cour de Cassation, France’s highest court, to overturn the ruling that freed him.

``The appeal has been drafted,″ a ministry spokesman said on condition of anonymity. Papon’s release, he argued, ``had practical consequences, in the form of protests, and more psychological consequences for the general public and victims.″

However, Papon will not return to jail anytime soon. The spokesman said that even if the ruling is overturned, Papon would remain free at least until another appeals court rules on his case.

Papon was released under a new provision in French law that allows prisoners to be freed if doctors agree they are suffering from a fatal illness, or that their long-term health is jeopardized by imprisonment.

The three-judge panel that freed Papon said doctors decided his health was ``incompatible with his remaining in detention.″

One of the court-appointed doctors who examined Papon, Odile Diamant-Berger, on Thursday defended their diagnosis.

``Someone who is ill or gravely ill is not necessarily placed on a stretcher, or on crutches or in an ambulance,″ she said on France-Info radio. ``That Mr. Papon came out on his own legs does not mean that he is not suffering a serious illness.″

But victims were not convinced.

``We are well aware that this man has very severe cardiovascular disorders,″ said Michel Slitinsky, whose father was arrested in a Papon-ordered roundup of Jews in 1942 and died in Auschwitz. ``But how many sick people, invalids, pregnant women were thrown into the convoys without Papon saying a word?″

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