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The Prosecutor v. Klaus Barbie

Court Supreme Court (Criminal Law Chamber), France
Case number 86-92714
Decision title Arrêt
Decision date 25 November 1986
  • The Prosecutor
  • Klaus Barbie
  • Bogatto Lise
Categories Crimes against humanity
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Klaus Barbie was a member of the German SS and later the head of the Gestapo in Lyon, Occupied France in 1942. He was wanted by the French authorities for charges of crimes against humanity committed during World War II, during which time he earned the nickname the ‘Butcher of Lyon’ in recognition of his notorious interrogation style.

After the war, he was recruited by the Army Counter Intelligence Corps of the United States, which later helped him emigrate to Bolivia. When the French authorities became aware of his residence in Bolivia, an arrest warrant was issued. Bolivia expelled Barbie and, as he was disembarking a plane in French Guyana, he was picked up by French authorities and detained. A crucial question in his case has been the qualification of the crimes with which he is charged: crimes against humanity are not subject to a statute of limitations and may therefore be prosecuted irrespective of how long ago they were committed. By contrast, war crimes are subject to the French statute of limitations of 10 years. The present decision was an appeal by a widow, a victim of Barbie’s who had lost her husband and her son during the war, against a decision of a lower court which held that her application to become a civil party was inadmissible as the she was a victim of war crimes and not crimes against humanity, and thus the 10 year statute of limitations had expired. The Supreme Court of France overturned the decision of the Court of Appeal of Lyon, finding that a crime can simultaneously be qualified as a crime against humanity and a war crime.

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Procedural history

On 3 November 1982, the instructing judge issued an arrest warrant for Klaus Barbie who was wanted for crimes against humanity committed in 1943 and 1944 during his time as the head of the Gestapo in Lyon, then Occupied France.

On 5 February 1983, Barbie was expelled from Bolivia where he had been hiding for many years under an assumed name to French Guyana. Whilst disembarking at the airport in French Guyana, he was intercepted by members of the Gendarmerie who questioned and detained him. That same day he was brought before the investigating judge who ordered his transfer to prison. On 12 February 1982, proceedings commenced against Barbie.

On 19 December 1985, the Public Prosecutor declared inadmissible the application by Bogatto Lise (the widow of Mr Georges Lesevre) to be joined as a civil party to the criminal proceedings against Klaus Barbie. Her application complained of facts constituting war crimes, the statute of limitations had expired and therefore her application was inadmissible.

On 25 April 1986, the Court of Appeal of Lyon upheld the decision of the Public Prosecutor. Ms Lesevre appealed this decision to the Supreme Court of France.

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Related developments

On 4 July 1987, the Cour d’Assise of Rhone convicted Barbie of crimes against humanity and sentenced him to life imprisonment.

On 3 June 1988, the Supreme Court (Criminal law Chamber) dismissed the entirety of Barbie’s appeal and upheld his conviction and sentence. He died in prison in 1991 at the age of 77.

See AP, ‘Guilty Verdict Stuns Barbie’, The Milwaukee Journal, 5 July 1987; ‘Barbie Given Life Prison Term for Crimes Against Humanity’, The Milwaukee Sentinel, 4 July 1987; and ‘Klaus Barbie, Nazi War Criminal, Dies’, The Milwaukee Sentinel, 26 September 1991.

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Legally relevant facts

Bogatto Lise, also known as Mrs. Lesevre, was a member of the Resistance during the war. She was arrested on 13 March 1944 whilst she had in her possession a number of documents that she was charged with delivering to various addressees. She was interrogated and tortured under the direction of Klaus Barbie, the accused, who sought information about the head of the Resistance. Her husband and her son were arrested the same day.

Mrs. Lesevre was deported on 19 May 1944 to the concentration camp at Ravensbruck. Her husband was deported to the concentration camp at Dachau and died there on 28 January 1945. Her son was deported to the camp at Neuengamme and died there on 3 May 1945 (p. 3).

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Core legal questions

  • What is the definition of crimes against humanity?
  • Can crimes against humanity be committed against individuals participating in the war effort or are such crimes exclusively qualified as war crimes?

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Specific legal rules and provisions

  • Article 6 of the Statute of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg.
  • Articles 7(2) and 60 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
  • Article 15(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
  • French Law No. 64-1326 of 26 December 1964.
  • Articles 591 and 593 of the French Code of Criminal Procedure.

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Court's holding and analysis

Crimes against humanity, within the meaning of Article 6(c) of the Statute of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg are inhuman acts and acts of persecution committed by the State pursuing a policy of ideological hegemony in a systematic way against individuals by reason of their belonging to a particular racial or religious group, or against adversaries of this State policy, whatever form the latter’s opposition may take. The underlying facts constituting crimes against humanity may at the same time constitute war crimes within the meaning of Article 6(b) of the Statute of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg (p. 3).

Individuals participating in the war effort may be the victims of crimes against humanity if the crimes were committed in a systematic and widespread manner and justified politically by the national socialist ideology. Neither the motives of the victims nor their eventual quality as combatants or hostages in the armed conflict preclude the existence of the intentional element common to crimes against humanity (p. 4).

The Supreme Court overturned the decision of the Court of Appeal of Lyon and sent the case back to the Court of Appeal of Paris for reconsideration (p. 4).

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Further analysis

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Instruments cited

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