(Feb. 4, 2009) In January 2009, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) found that French courts violated article 10 (freedom of expression) of the European Convention on Human Rights in convicting the Chairman and the Managing Director, Olivier Orban and Xavier de Bartillat, respectively, of the publishing company Editions Plon, for publicly defending war crimes and/or abetting this offense. Editions Plon published a book in 2001 entitled Services Speciaux Algérie 1955-1957 written by General Paul Aussaresses, a former member of the French special services. The book described torture and summary executions carried out during the Algerian war with the knowledge of some French authorities, according to the General.
In 2002, Orban, de Bartillat, and Aussaresses appeared before the Paris Criminal Tribunal to answer to charges of publicly defending war crimes and/or aiding and abetting that offense. The charges referred to several passages from the book written by Aussaresses. The Tribunal found the defendants guilty and imposed heavy fines. The judgment was upheld by the Paris Court of Appeal, which considered that “Paul Aussaresses was justifying with insistence, all along in his book, torture and summary executions, and was trying to convince the reader that these practices were legitimate and inevitable under the circumstances.” (Affaire Orban et Autres c. France, ECHR website, http://cmiskp.echr.coe.int/ (last visited Jan. 15, 2009) [in French].) The Court also criticized the author for not repudiating his past and the publishers for not distancing themselves from the author's account. The Cour de Cassation (France's judicial Supreme Court) rejected the petition to quash the judgment filed by the defendants.
The ECHR disagreed with the conclusion of the Paris Court of Appeal. It saw the book above all as a personal account by a former special services officer who had served in Algeria, 'a central figure' in the conflict … who had been directly involved in these practices in the course of his duties. In publishing this personal account, the applicants had simply made this account available to the public. (Id.) The ECHR added that “the fact that the author does not distance himself from these horrifying practices and that, instead of expressing regrets, he claims to have been acting in accordance with the mission entrusted to him, accomplishing his duty, is an integral part of his account.” (Id., para. 49.) Under these circumstances, the ECHR found that “the Paris Court of Appeal's criticism of the applicants, in their capacity as publishers, for not distancing themselves from General Aussaresses's account was not justified.” (Id., para. 50.) The ECHR concluded that the French courts violated article 10 and awarded the applicants jointly €33,041 (about US$43,000) in pecuniary damages and €5,000 (about US$6,500) for costs and expenses. (Id.)