Nazi Collaborator A Free Man

Frail but now a free man, wartime collaborator Maurice Papon walked out of prison Wednesday and into a storm of public outrage after judges ruled him too old and sick to finish his 10-year sentence for helping send Jews to Nazi death camps.

"I can't believe this is happening," said Colette Guttman, as she watched Papon shuffle out of Paris' La Sante prison into a waiting car. "My father, my mother and my uncle were killed at Auschwitz because of people like Papon, who now have the right to rest in their old age."

A French appeals court ordered the release of wartime collaborator Papon, in a decision that provoked outpourings of frustration and dismay from those who fought a long battle to bring him to justice.

Papon, 92, has been serving a prison sentence since 1999 for complicity in crimes against humanity. His lawyers were exultant and said they would now seek a new trial to clear his name.

"He didn't believe it," said attorney Jean-Marc Varaut. "I told him he was free. He said: 'How did it happen?'"

The court rejected the request of the public prosecutor that Papon be kept in jail because his release could present "trouble for public order" and said expert medical testimony had shown he was too ill to be kept in prison.

"This is a crucial moment in his history, a great victory," lawyer Francis Vuillemin said.

Papon rose to budget minister after the war, making him the highest-ranking former French official sentenced for collaboration with the Nazis. His six-month trial was the longest in France's history, and revived painful memories of France's wartime past.

Papon led the Bordeaux area police during the Nazi occupation of France and was convicted in 1998 for signing orders that led to the deportation of 1,690 Jews from Bordeaux from 1942-44. Most were sent to Auschwitz; all but a handful died.

Papon's continuing imprisonment at Paris' La Sante jail had sparked impassioned debate in France about jailing the elderly. Two French former prime ministers were among those who had called for Papon's release.

Papon had triple coronary bypass surgery several years ago and had a pacemaker implanted in January 1999. He is now practically bedridden and suffers from heart problems, his lawyers argued at the appeals hearing.

His lawyers filed a new request for his release over the summer, based on a new provision in French law that allows prisoners to be freed if two independent doctors agree they are suffering from a fatal illness, or their long-term health is endangered by remaining behind bars.

A judge rejected the request July 24, and Papon's lawyers appealed again.

Minutes after the verdict was announced, anti-racism groups and representatives of Holocaust victims' families condemned it.

Serge Klarsfeld, a Nazi hunter and historian who helped produce much of the evidence used at Papon's trial, said the decision to free him "gives a feeling of injustice."

"We had fought so that he would stay in prison," Klarsfeld said. "What I hope is that this sick man doesn't turn out to be healthy."

Alain Jakubowicz, a lawyer who represented families of Papon's victims at his trial, noted that this year marks the 60th anniversary of the roundups of Jews by France's wartime regime. "That's the most important thing, not the release of Maurice Papon."

"I simply hope that once released, Maurice Papon will have the decency to shut up and not strut around as he has until now," Jakubowicz said.

Before the ruling, French President Jacques Chirac had turned down three requests to pardon Papon. Chirac's Elysee Palace said it had no immediate comment Wednesday.

Justice Minister Dominique Perben said he had taken note of the decision, though it wasn't what the prosecutor, the ministry and he himself had hoped for.

"We believed that his continued imprisonment was necessary, taking into account the seriousness of the charges against him," Perben told France-Info radio.

After Papon is released, he will be "totally free to come and go," said Francis Vuillemin, another of Papon's lawyers. Papon will, however, have to inform a judge when he leaves his residence at Gretz-Armainvilliers, outside Paris.

The former official fled to Switzerland after his conviction, but was arrested and began serving his sentence in October 1999. Last year, he wrote in a letter to France's justice minister that he did not have any "regrets or remorse" for his acts.

After the war, Papon became Paris police chief in 1958, a powerful post he held until 1967. But his record was marred by charges of police brutality, when he ordered a crackdown that led to the deaths of as many as 200 Algerian demonstrators found beaten and drowned in the Seine River.

In 1968 he was elected to the French parliament, and in 1979 became budget minister under President Valery Giscard d'Estaing.

Papon's wartime record was revealed in 1981, on the eve of Giscard's effort to be re-elected. Giscard, who backed his minister, lost to Socialist candidate Francois Mitterrand.

Like several other senior Vichy officials who evaded justice, Papon was shielded at the highest levels. In 1994, then-President Mitterrand admitted in a television interview he had intervened to stall the case.