Maurice Papon, the former French Cabinet minister on trial for the mass deportations of Jews in World War II, won a stunning and potentially decisive courtroom victory Friday when his judges ordered him freed for the duration of the proceedings.
According to legal experts, the Bordeaux court's surprise ruling means Papon, accused of complicity in "crimes against humanity," the most heinous offense in the French criminal code, can again walk the streets a free man, even if he is eventually convicted, until any appeal is heard.
The decision outraged Jewish families whose relatives died in the Holocaust. Papon, now 87 and in dubious health, could die before an appeal, which could take years, they said.
"This is a scandalous decision," exclaimed Arno Klarsfeld, an attorney representing the families of Jewish children who were deported from Bordeaux and later exterminated in Nazi concentration camps.
Klarsfeld stormed out of the court and said he would not be back.
"This is a trial that is losing all its meaning, because the defendant doesn't risk prison," he charged.
Rene Jacob, a gray-haired grandfather and Holocaust survivor, said he was going straight to his hotel to pack his bags and then take the first train back to Paris for fear he might be tempted to take justice into his own hands.
"The worst of all, it's that whatever the verdict is, if Maurice Papon appeals, he can die quietly," he said. "There will be no more room for action."
For more than a decade and a half, members of Bordeaux's Jewish community and their supporters have labored to bring Papon into a courtroom.
His historic trial, which began Wednesday, is the first of a former official of the pro-Nazi Vichy regime for his alleged compliance with the Nazis' persecution of European Jewry.
Since Tuesday, Papon, France's budget minister from 1978-81, had spent his nights in a jail near Bordeaux. His attorney, Jean-Larc Varaut, objected strongly, contending that all defendants should be presumed innocent and that incarceration might be fatal to his client.
In June 1996, Papon underwent a triple heart bypass. In court Thursday, according to Varaut, he complained of chest pains. That same night about 11, Papon was transferred from his cell to the intensive-care unit of a hospital cardiology ward outside Bordeaux.
Varaut said his client was urgently hospitalized for "a grave state preliminary to a heart attack."
But Marc Robert, one of the prosecutors, countered that hospitalization was a preventive measure ordered by jittery prison authorities.
Two medical experts appointed by the court had recommended that Papon be removed from the Gradignan prison and confined in a hospital under medical supervision.
But on Friday, in a decision that plunged the chamber at Bordeaux's Palace of Justice into shocked silence, the three-judge panel trying the case elected to free Papon unconditionally.
Citing Papon's advanced age, "the serious alteration of his state of health" and the length of the trial, expected to last almost three months, Presiding Judge Jean-Louis Castagnede said there was no reason to believe that Papon might try to flee or pressure witnesses.
"It's not a victory for the defense, it's a victory for the law," Varaut said later in a telephone interview.
Although French judicial procedure maintains that liberty for the defendant should be the rule, people tried in criminal cases customarily are incarcerated until a verdict is reached. In previous war crimes trials here, like those of Gestapo official Klaus Barbie and Paul Touvier, a thug who had headed the pro-Nazi militia in Lyon, the defendants were locked in their jail cells at night.
Varaut predicted that the Supreme Court of Appeal would take no longer than six months to hear any appeal of a guilty verdict. Under French procedure, Papon could be jailed as soon as that hearing began.
Taken away from the court in a gray armored limousine Friday afternoon, Papon was driven with his police bodyguards to a luxury hotel in the vineyard country outside Bordeaux. On Monday, his trial resumes, with Varaut trying to have all charges dropped because so many people the defense would like to call as witnesses are dead or incapacitated.