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The Prosecutor v. Klaus Barbie

Court Supreme Court (Criminal Law Chamber), France
Case number 87-84240
Decision title Arrêt
Decision date 3 June 1988
  • The Prosecutor
  • Klaus Barbie
Categories Crimes against humanity
Keywords crimes against humanity, deportation, execution, pillage, torture
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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.

After a series of decisions regarding challenges to the jurisdiction of the French courts, Barbie was convicted for multiple counts of crimes against humanity by the Cour d’assises of Rhone and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1987. The present decision was his final appeal; it was rejected in its entirety by the Supreme Court of France. Barbie died in prison in 1991 at the age of 77. 

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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 4 July 1987, the Cour d’assises of Rhone found Barbie guilty and sentenced him to life in prison for crimes against humanity.

He appealed the decision.

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Related developments

Barbie died in prison in 1991 at the age of 77 (see ‘Klaus Barbie, Nazi War Criminal, Dies’, The Milwaukee Sentinel, 26 September 1991).

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Legally relevant facts

Barbie was a member of the German SS and from 1943 until the end of the war, occupied the position of the head of the Gestapo in Lyon, Occupied France.

As a result of his position, Barbie was responsible for the deportation of Jewish individuals to concentration camps throughout Germany and Poland, including particularly those individuals deported by train from Lyon on 11 August 1944; the detention and internment of individuals without due process; the torture of certain individuals in the interests of obtaining information about members of the Resistance; and the kidnapping of Jewish children from the chilren’s home in Izieu.

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Core legal questions

  • What are the legal consequences of Barbie having been sentenced to death in 1954 by Armed Forces Permanent Tribunal of Lyon and his sentence for life imprisonment handed down by another court in 1987?
  • Did the formulation of questions to the jury breach the principle that each aggravating circumstance is to be addressed in a separate question pursuant to Article 349 of the Code of Criminal Procedure?
  • What are the legal consequences of the jury not having been asked to determine whether the accused acted upon the instructions of his Government or a superior?

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Specific legal rules and provisions

  • Article 8 of the Statute of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg.
  • Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
  • Article 349 of the French Code of Criminal Procedure.

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Court's holding and analysis

The principle that crimes against humanity are not subject to any statute of limitations applies to both the prosecution and the punishment of crimes against humanity. It therefore precludes the application of a rule of national law, which allows an individual convicted of such an offense to evade justice because of the expiration of a given time period when, as here, no penalty was incurred. Barbie may not consequently invoke the expiration of his death sentence handed down in 1954 as grounds for evading life imprisonment considering that his sentence was never carried out (p. 4).

Article 349 of the Code of Criminal procedure provides that separate questions are to be formulated in relation to separate facts and individual aggravating circumstances. The accused alleges that this principle was breached as the jury was asked to determine, in a single question, the guilt of the accused with respect to the crimes of extermination, deportation and persecution, as well as his involvement in a plan to carry out such crimes (p. 6). The Court held that the accused’s participation in a plan to realise the execution of the crimes was the consequence of his perpetrating said crimes and amounted therefore, not to a separate crime or an aggravating circumstance, but to an essential element of crimes against humanity: the accomplishment of the prohibited acts in a systematic way in the name of the State practicing a policy of ideological hegemony (p. 7). Article 349 prohibits only the formulation of questions containing numerous facts or circumstances capable of giving rise to different responses.

The jury was asked to take into consideration that the accused acted upon the instructions of his Government and his superiors in their determination of the existence of any mitigating factors in favour of the accused, as Article 8 of the Statute of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg provides that superior orders may be taken into account at sentencing as a mitigating circumstance (p. 12),

Barbie’s appeal was rejected and the sentence upheld.

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Further analysis

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Instruments cited

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Related cases

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Additional materials