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The death on Saturday of Maurice Papon, the highest-ranking Frenchman to be convicted for his role in the pro-Nazi Vichy regime, is "a reflection of the ambivalent attitude the French have towards French-Nazi collaborators," according to Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Papon's death at 96 from heart trouble came four years after his release from jail. He was sentenced to 10 years for his role in deporting 1,600 Jews from the French province of Bordeaux between 1942 and 1944 while he was general-secretary of the prefecture of Gironde, a position that put him in charge of the Service for Jewish Questions for the collaborationist Vichy government.
He served only three years of his sentence, during which he applied for release on the grounds of deteriorating health. Although his petition was rejected by president Jacques Chirac, Papon took his case to the European Court of Human Rights which accepted his appeal.
His release angered many human rights activists, as well as Israeli politicians, including President Moshe Katsav, who said: "It's a difficult decision for us Israelis to accept given the abominable crimes of which Papon was convicted."
With Papon's death, Gerard Boulanger, the lawyer in charge of the 27 civil cases against Papon in Bordeaux, expressed disappointment that Papon died without serving his sentence. "We were not able to reintegrate the torturer into humanity," he said.
"The civil suits might be successful, but in the eyes of the public - if there is no criminal conviction [fully served] - then it is a hollow conviction," added Zuroff
Others, however, view the sentence as a victory, despite the fact that Papon never served the full time. "What matters to us is the 10-year sentence he received... because through him, it symbolized the condemnation of all the public functions performed by the Vichy government," said Arno Klarsfeld, one of the advocates for the victims in the civil case against Papon.
Despite such vocal opposition and publicity, Papon has long maintained his innocence. In a February 2001 letter to the justice minister, Papon said he had neither "regrets nor remorse for a crime I did not commit and for which I am in no way an accomplice."
Papon's lawyer, Francis Vuillemin, said Saturday his client "fought till the end" and "died a free man."
Evidence of Papon's responsibilities during the Holocaust began to emerge in the 1980s when an article that appeared in a French newspaper showed that documents ordering the deportation of Jews in Bordeaux bore Papon's signature.
These documents, along with the work of famous Nazi hunters, Serge and Beate Klarsfeld, contributed to the charge of crimes against humanity which were brought against Papon in 1983.
Papon fought the charges for 15 years, but was eventually convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He then fled to Switzerland but was sent back to France by the Swiss government. Then-prime minister Lionel Jospin called Papon's flight a "final sign of indifference, contempt and provocation with regard to all victims of the Holocaust."
"This was a man who did not want to acknowledge what he did, and did not want to ask forgiveness," said Juliette Benzanon, a claimant in the Bordeaux civil case against Papon for the death of 12 members of her family.
AP contributed to this report.
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