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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Touvier Guilty of War Crimes

PARIS -- Paul Touvier, a militia chief and intelligence officer for the collaborationist Vichy regime of Nazi-occupied France, has been judged guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced to the maximum penalty of life in prison.

The historic verdict, reached by a nine-member jury after nearly six hours of deliberation in a Versailles courtroom, affirmed that Touvier was carrying out the genocidal policies of the Nazi regime when he executed seven Jews in a Lyon suburb 50 years ago in retaliation for the assassination of a Vichy minister by the French resistance.

The five-week trial captivated much of France, which has been forced in recent years to re-examine the national myth of heroic resistance after being confronted by historical evidence that showed collaboration with the Nazi occupation was much more commonplace than previously reported.

As the first Frenchman to stand trial for crimes against humanity, Touvier offered the most vivid illustration of how French citizens actively carried out anti-Semitic purges and other Nazi policies, in some instances even without prompting from German occupation forces.

The Vichy regime rounded up at least 75,000 French Jews and deported them to Nazi-run death camps, where only 2,500 survived. But until the case of Touvier and other leading French collaborators gained notoriety, such facts were obscured by the nation's willful desire to believe in the myth that much of the population fought to undermine the four-year Nazi occupation.

Touvier's lawyer, Jacques Tremolet de Villers, sought to depict his client as a scapegoat who was being sacrificed to ease the country's stricken conscience. He also claimed that Touvier executed the seven Jews in order to protect 23 others whom the Germans wanted killed in reprisal for the resistance's murder of Philippe Henriot, the chief propaganda minister for the Vichy regime.

"All his life he has had a wound in his soul because of what he was forced to do," Tremolet declared during his final argument that lasted nearly five hours.

In his own appearances before the jury, the frail, 79-year-old Touvier only acknowledged "a certain amount of responsibility" for the killings. Tuesday, he spoke about his feelings for the victims when asked by Judge Henri Boulard if he had anything left to tell the court.

"I have never forgotten the Rillieux victims," Touvier said in a barely audible whisper, referring to the Lyon suburb of Rillieux-la-Pape, where the executions occurred in 1944. "I think about them every day, every night. That's all."

Touvier's lawyer cited remarks by President Francois Mitterrand, published last week, that there was little point in reopening old wounds by prosecuting old men so long after the crimes of which they were accused.

The argument that France should put aside the bitter emotions of the war led former President Georges Pompidou to pardon Touvier for his crimes two decades ago. But since there is no statute of limitation for crimes against humanity, Touvier still remained a fugitive from justice for his role in the execution of the seven Jews.

Twice sentenced to death in absentia, he had escaped from a Paris police station in 1947 and led a life on the lam, finding shelter mainly among Catholic fundamentalists. He married and had two children during his 45 years in hiding, and successive governments seemed to make no serious effort to find him.

But after the conviction in 1987 of Touvier's boss Klaus Barbie, the German Gestapo chief known as the "Butcher of Lyon," police investigators went after him. He was tracked down and arrested in 1989 at a monastery near Nice, where police found Nazi medals, swastikas and decorations from the German army among his possessions.