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The Prosecutor v. Klaus Barbie

Court Supreme Court (Criminal Law Chamber), France
Case number 83-93194
Decision title Arrêt
Decision date 6 October 1983
  • The Prosecutor
  • Klaus Barbie
Categories Crimes against humanity
Keywords crimes against humanity, deportation, execution, pillage, torture
Other countries involved
  • Bolivia
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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 against the French authorities for having illegally detained him on the basis of a dissimulated extradition. The Supreme Court of France, Criminal Law Chamber rejected his appeal finding that his expulsion was not null and there was no obstacle to proceedings against him. Furthermore, his detention was in the interests of the international community which, through the UN, had agreed to help facilitate the return of individuals suspected of having committed war crimes and crimes against humanity to the countries where they had perpetrated such offences for the purposes of being brought to justice. 

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Procedural history

On 3 November 1982, the instructing judge in Lyon, France issued an arrest warrant for Klaus Barbie who was wanted for crimes against humanity.

On 5 February 1983, Barbie was expelled from Bolivia (the country where had he had been seeking refuge) to the Cayenne-Rochambeau airport in French Guyana. As he was disembarking the plane, he was intercepted by members of the Gendarmerie and brought before the investigating judge who charged him with crimes against humanity and ordered his committal to prison.

On 7 June 1983, Barbie’s defence counsel submitted a request for the release of his client on the grounds that his detention by the Gendarmerie and his subsequent questioning was the result of a dissimulated extradition, that is, a capture that does not respect the rules and procedure for extradition and which was concerted by two States. This was rejected by an order of 10 June 1983.

The order was confirmed on appeal by the Chambre d’Accusation of the Lyon Court of Appeal by on 8 July 1983. The Court of Appeal held that crimes against humanity are of such a nature that they are subject to an international repressive order, which does not acknowledge borders and rules of extradition.

Barbie appealed this decision to the Supreme Court on the grounds that in a previous decision of 3 May 1860, the French Supreme Court had held that a dissimulated extradition would nullify criminal proceedings.

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Related developments

On 26 January 1984, the Supreme Court (Criminal Law Chamber) confirmed that there is no statute of limitations applicable to crimes against humanity. The proceedings against Barbie could therefore continue.

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 statutory 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. However, crimes perpetrated against Resistance fighters would be excluded as war crimes. See also ‘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 ‘Barbie Given Life Prison Term for Crimes Against Humanity’, The Milwaukee Sentinel, 4 July 1987; ‘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

  • Did Barbie’s expulsion by Bolivia and subsequent detention by French authorities amount to a dissimulated extradition entailing as a consequence the nullification of criminal proceedings and his release from custody?

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Specific legal rules and provisions

  • Articles 1, 23 and 25 of the French Law of 10 March 1927.
  • Articles 1 and 4 of the French Criminal Code.
  • Articles 591 and 593 of the French Code of Criminal Procedure
  • Articles 7 and 8 of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.
  • Articles 53 and 66 of the French Constitution of 4 October 1958.

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Court's holding and analysis

There is no obstacle to prosecuting Barbie: the expulsion procedure was not null. Crimes against humanity are subject not only to internal French law but also to an international repressive order. The Statute of the International Military Tribunal of Nuremberg and the Resolution of the United Nations of 13 February 1946 confirms that all necessary measures must be taken by UN Member States to punish crimes against humanity and war crimes, and to return persons suspected of having committed such crimes to the country where they perpetrated the offenses so that they may be tried and punished accordingly.

The Supreme Court thereby rejected the appeal. 

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Instruments cited

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Related cases

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Additional materials