In France, `the trial of the decade' fizzles

The judge droned on. The prosecutor asked softball questions, the defense lawyer smirked, and then mocked the proceedings. Up on the right of the specially arranged courtroom in the foyer of the Palais de Justice, the glass box reserved for the defendant, former Gestapo officer Klaus Barbie, sat empty. It was supposed to be the trial of the decade. By bringing the so-called Butcher of Lyon - infamous for his alleged part in the murder, torture, and deportation of French Resisters and Jews as Lyon's Gestapo chief from 1942 to 1944 - back to face his accusers, the organizers hoped to create a gripping drama, a haunting history lesson conjuring up images of the wartime past for those who are to young too remember, those who have forgotten, and those who never wanted to know.

Instead, the first week of the trial turned unspeakable horror into tedium and boredom. While members of the jury dozed off, the 74-year-old Barbie - charged with crimes against humanity - listened attentively for two days as Judge Andr'e Cerdini read the charges in a monotone for eight straight hours, listing the birthplace, address, and deportation time of each of those sent to concentration camps. The former SS Obersturfuhrer showed no sign of remorse, saying he was ``only a lieutenant'' in charge of a 120-man unit who ``worked under my superiors.''

Then he walked out.

``I am an illegal hostage,'' Mr. Barbie said. Protesting his expulsion from Bolivia to France in 1983, he said he was the victim of a ``lynch atmosphere.''

His departure on the trial's third day bogged down the event in legal technicalities. On Thursday and Friday, Judge Cerdini suspended the proceedings for about an hour to let policemen visit Barbie in his cell at the Saint-Joseph prison, and ask him if he wished to return. When proceedings finally did begin, most of the rest of the available time was taken up by legal maneuverings on whether Barbie was indeed properly expelled from Bolivia and whether he now should be forced to appear in court.

The public has begun to lose interest. Trial stories that covered the front pages at the beginning of the week were moved to inside pages of the papers. Empty seats appeared in the press section.

``This is a media trial,'' said Marek Halter, a novelist and leader of the French Jewish community, ``and once the media loses attention, the necessary impact is lost.''

Barbie's departure means he probably will not be forced to face his alleged victims when they begin testifying this week. ``It would be much more satisfying for the criminal to face his victims,'' said Beate Klarsfeld, the German Christian Nazi hunter who discovered Barbie living in Bolivia and was instrumental in the campaign to bring him to trial.

Under French law, a defendant can be brought to his trial by force. But Mr. Cerdini declined Friday to take such an action, saying Barbie's presence was ``not indispensable for the immediate future.'' Although his wording implied that he would be prepared to reconsider his request, some observers expressed fears that forcing Barbie to appear would deliver a dangerous moral message.

``Physical force would be disagreeable in a democratic country,'' said Samuel Pisar, a renowned international lawyer and author and a concentration camp survivor. Nazism's essence was force, Mr. Pisar said, and for that reason, force should not be used in a democracy.

Some also see complications in focusing on the individual. ``When you see this ... old man, horror is mixed with pity,'' said Pisar.

Most of the attention is now directed at Barbie's flamboyant lawyer Jacques Verg`es. At the trial, Mr. Verg`es sits alone opposite the 40 civil plantiffs. He plays the David versus the Goliath, mocking his ``righteous, smug'' adversaries.

Verg`es' strategy is simple. He is concentrating on turning the trial's focus away from the victims of the Holocaust to the victims of other atrocities, comparing Barbie's work against Resistance fighters in Lyon to the French soldiers fighting against Algerians during the war of independence. He also will try to show that the French Resistance was full of opportunists ready to betray their fellow soldiers.

``The media are fragile, they need a spectacle, a shock, and Verg`es gives it them,'' says Bigault du Granrut, the lawyer representing Resistance fighters said to have been tortured and deported by Barbie. ``We end up losing sight of who was the executioner and who was the victim.''

Will the public fail to make the proper distinction? The answer is not clear. A monument to the Holocaust, constructed especially for the trial by the local Jewish community, stands in front of Lyon's town hall, across the river from the Palais de Justice. The visitor enters to find photos from the death camps, drawings by the inmates, and then, to the lament of the kaddish - the Jewish prayer for the dead - passes a memorial dedicated to the exterminated 6 million Jews.

In three days since it opened, organizer Eric Munz says some 17,000 Lyonnais, most of them not Jewish, have visited.

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