PARIS - Maurice Papon, the most prominent Frenchman ever to be brought to justice for Nazi war crimes, was allowed to walk free from prison yesterday because of old age and poor health.
In a stunning reversal, a French appeals court ordered the release yesterday of the 92-year-old war criminal, who was serving a 10-year sentence for approving the deportation of more than 1,500 Jews while he was a police chief serving Vichy, the Nazi puppet state.
The decision was immediately hailed by Papon's lawyers as a victory and a vindication, and condemned by those who had worked long and hard to put him behind bars.
"Obviously, there is a double standard when it comes to justice in France," Michael Slitinsky, president of the Association of Families of Victims of Deportation in the Bordeaux region, said in a telephone interview. "Monsieur Papon walked out of prison, his head held high, arm in arm with his lawyer, looking not at all like someone who's on his deathbed. This is a revolting decision."
Serge Klarsfeld, the Nazi hunter and historian who helped produce much of the evidence used at Papon's trial three years ago, said, "I hope that this sick man does not turn out to be healthy."
Papon was said to have been surprised by the decision. "He is stunned and satisfied," said Jean-Marc Varaut, one of his lawyers, in a telephone interview. Asked what his client will do, Varaut replied, "That's personal."
Another lawyer, Francois Vuillemin, said, "This decision shows in the most striking manner that Maurice Papon has been wasting away in jail as the result of an illegal ruling."
The decision stunned the new center-right government of President Jacques Chirac, who had denied Papon's requests for a pardon.
"This was not done in agreement with the public prosecutor's office," Dominique Perben, the minister of justice, told journalists in front of Elysee Palace. "At the same time, this is not a decision of justice which is mine to comment upon."
Perhaps more than any other Nazi war tribunal, the six-month trial of the former wartime bureaucrat in the southwest town of Tulle in 1997 and 1998 exposed the extent to which the French collaborated with the Nazi regime and for many years seemed to forgive their own.
Starting in 1942, as second in command of Bordeaux's Jewish affairs office, Papon approved the transport of 1,560 Jews, first to Paris and then to Auschwitz.
After the war, he escaped punishment and resumed his career in the French administration, serving as police chief of Paris and a Gaullist legislator. He served as budget minister from 1978 to 1981. Though charged with crimes against humanity in 1983, he avoided trial for 15 more years.
Despite his signature on many transportation orders, Papon remained unapologetic for his actions as a young civil servant in occupied Bordeaux during World War II. "By finding me guilty, you would at the same time discredit the very notion of a crime against humanity," he said at his trial.
Papon argued during his 1998 trial that he was just a middleman and should not be held accountable. He testified he was not actively aiding the Nazis but was merely a functionary relaying orders from superiors.
In 1998, a jury convicted him of illegal arrests and detention. At the time, a poll found that 52 percent of the public were of the opinion that the trial had not been "useful."
Papon fled to Switzerland after his conviction but was arrested and began serving his sentence in October 1999.
Asked yesterday whether his client felt remorse, Vavaut replied, "Your thinking reveals your ignorance, which is distasteful."
Papon left La Sante, a fortress-like prison in Paris, on foot and took with him his belongings, including framed photos of his deceased wife and of Gen. Charles de Gaulle, said Varaut.
"I can't believe this is happening," said Colette Guttman, as she watched Papon shuffle out of the 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."
Papon was driven to his lavish family villa in the town of Gretz-Armainvilliers, east of Paris. Under the terms of his release, he is to remain there unless he receives authorization to leave.
Papon had triple coronary bypass surgery several years ago and has a pacemaker. His imprisonment set off a debate about the ethics of jailing the elderly.