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The Prosecutor v. Klaus Barbie

Court Supreme Court (Criminal Law Chamber), France
Case number 83-94425
Decision title Arrêt
Decision date 26 January 1984
  • 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.

The present decision was his final appeal challenging the proceedings against him on the grounds that the statute of limitations for his alleged crimes had expired and that the French law of 1964 which held that there are no statutes of limitations for crimes against humanity was contrary to the principle of non-retroactivity of criminal law. The Supreme Court of France (Criminal Law Chamber) rejected the appeal. It held that it was a general principle of civilised nations that crimes against humanity were not subject to statutes of limitation, meaning that an individual suspected of having committed them could be prosecuted irrespective of how long ago the alleged crimes occurred. 

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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.

By a decision of 28 October 1983, the Chambre d’Accusation of the Court of Appeal of Lyon held that there was no statute of limitations for crimes against humanity. Therefore, though the crimes with which Barbie was charged had occurred in 1943 and 1944, this time lapse is no barrier to proceedings against him.

Barbie appealed this decision to the Supreme Court (Criminal Law Chamber).

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Related developments

On 20 December 1985, the Supreme Court (Criminal Law Chamber) held that the 10-year statute of limitations applies to war crimes, with the effect that any conduct by Barbie amounting to war crimes could not be prosecuted due to the lapse of the statute of limitations. The case was sent back to the Cour d’assises who would proceed on charges of crimes against humanity, notably those crimes of persecution perpetrated against innocent Jews as part of the "final solution". Crimes perpetrated against Resistance fighters would be excluded as war crimes. See also ‘Barbie Given Life Prison Term for Crimes Against Humanity’, The Milwaukee Sentinel, 4 July 1987; and ‘Guilty Verdict Stuns Barbie’, The Milwaukee Journal, 5 July 1987.

Barbie was sentenced to life in prison. He 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 is charged with having committed acts of deportation, torture, execution and pillage in 1943 and 1944 during his time in the German SS and as the head of the Gestapo in Lyon, occupied France.

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Core legal questions

  • Is the Court of Appeal’s determination that crimes against humanity have no statute of limitations contrary to the criminal law principle of non-retroactivity?

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Specific legal rules and provisions

  • Articles 7, 591 and 593 of the French Code of Criminal Procedure.
  • Article 8 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.
  • Articles 7 and 60 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

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Court's holding and analysis

The Law of 26 December 1964 provides that there is no statute of limitations for proceedings against perpetrators of crimes against humanity. The Appellant contends that this provision breaches the principle of non-retroactivity of the criminal law by retroactively replacing the prior law, which held that crimes were subject to a statute of limitations of 10 years. Since the principle of non-retroactivity is a constitutional norm, it supersedes all other domestic and international legislation pursuant to Article 55 of the French Constitution.

The Supreme Court rejected this line of argumentation. It held that the principle that statutes of limitations do not apply to crimes against humanity, as laid down in the Law of 1964, was a principle recognised by all civilised nations. To this end, it referred to the official interpretation of the Statute of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg by the Minister of Foreign Affairs; the latter held that the text implies that crimes against humanity are never extinct. It also referred to the exception provided for in Article 7(2) of the European Convention on Human Rights, which provides that the principle of non-retroactivity shall not prejudice the trial and punishment of an individual for an act which was criminal at the time it was committed according to the general principles of law recognised by civilised nations.

The appeal was thus rejected.

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Further analysis

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Instruments cited

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