skip navigation

The Prosecutor v. Klaus Barbie

Court Supreme Court (Criminal Law Chamber), France
Case number 85-95166
Decision title Arrêt
Decision date 20 December 1985
  • The Prosecutor
  • Klaus Barbie
  • La Fédération Nationale pour les Déportés et Internes Resistants et Patriotes / National Federation for Deportees and Internal Resistants and Patriots
  • L’Association Nationale des Anciens Combattants de la Résistance, Comité Départementale du Rhone / National Association for Old Resistance Fighters, Rhone Committee
  • L’Association Départementale des Familles des Fusilles et Disparus Internes, Resistants et Patriotes du Rhone / The Departmental Association of Families of Gunned Down Solders, Missing Persons, Resist
  • La Ligue Française Pour la Défense des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen / The French League for the Defense of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen
  • Nicole Gompel
Categories Crimes against humanity
Keywords crimes against humanity, deportation, execution, pillage, torture, war crimes
back to top


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 number of civil parties and associations against a decision of a lower court, which held that proceedings against Barbie could not continue for conduct qualified as war crimes as the 10 year window had elapsed. The Supreme Court of France upheld the applicability of the 10 year statute of limitations to war crimes, but it clarified the difference between conduct which may amount at the same time to war crimes and crimes against humanity. As a result, Barbie’s case was sent back to the lower court so that proceedings could continue against him on charges of crimes against humanity, particularly persecution of innocent Jews as part of the "Final Solution". Crimes committed against resistance fighters were, however, excluded as war crimes. 

back to top

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 4 October 1985, the chambre d’accusation of the Court of Appeal of Lyon characterised the crimes with which Barbie was charged as war crimes, subject to a statute of limitations of 10 years, rather than as crimes against humanity, which are not subject to a statute of limitations. The 10 years having expired, proceedings were therefore barred on this ground. The Court sent the case back to the Cour d’assises for the crime of kidnapping minors at Isieux.

The civil parties enumerated above appealed the decision and their appeals were joined by the Supreme Court.

back to top

Related developments

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.

back to top

Core legal questions

  • Is there a distinction between war crimes and crimes against humanity concerning the applicability of statutes of limitation?
  • Can Barbie be prosecuted for crimes against humanity on the basis of the same conduct which constituted the basis for war crimes, and for which he was sentenced to death in absentia by a military tribunal in 1952 and 1954?
  • What criteria may be used to distinguish conduct that may amount at the same time to crimes against humanity and war crimes?

back to top

Specific legal rules and provisions

  • Article 6 of the Statute of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg.
  • Article 7 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
  • Article 15(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
  • Articles 2(4), 7, 575(3) and 593 of the French Code of Criminal Procedure.

back to top

Court's holding and analysis

Unlike crimes against humanity, war crimes are committed in the specific context of hostilities between States and in the course of which perpetrators and victims come to light. After the close of hostilities, it is necessary that time erases the acts committed during this time, even if such conduct was contrary to the laws and customs of war so long as such conduct is not susceptible to requalification as crimes against humanity. There is no authority superior to French domestic law, which declares that war crimes are not subject to a statute of limitations. Thus, the 10-year statute of limitations remains applicable.

Crimes against humanity and war crimes can be committed successively or simultaneously. The conduct for which Barbie was sentenced to death as a result of jn absentia trials by the Lyon military tribunal in 1952 and 1954 can form the basis for new proceedings against him for crimes against humanity, which are not subject to a statute of limitations pursuant to the Law of 26 December 1964.

According to the wording of the Statute of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, persecutions are crimes against humanity where they are directed against non-combatants and committed in application of a deliberate State policy for racial, religious or political motives. Such persecutions are war crimes where they are characterised by the fact that they are useful for the conduct of the war. In application of these principles, the Supreme Court sent Barbie’s case back to the Cour d’assises who are to examine charges of persecution as crimes against humanity against innocent Jews in view of the Final Solution. Acts perpetrated against Resistance fighters are excluded as war crimes, which are extinct due to the expiration of the statute of limitations. 

back to top

Further analysis

back to top

Instruments cited

back to top

Related cases