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‘A Short Film About Killing’: The movie that brought an end to the Polish death penalty

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The most intellectually challenging film I have ever seen about capital punishment. Definitely a must-see. DPN review and YouTube trailer available in our 'Films & Documentaries' section — DPN editor As far as European cinema goes, there are few figures quite admired in critical circles as the inimitable Krzysztof Kieślowski. Known for his Dekalog series of 1989, as well as The Double Life of Veronique and the Three Colours trilogy, Kieślowski embodied everything so extraordinary about the power of European cinema and that of his native Poland in turn.

France | Robert Badinter, ex-Justice minister who fought to abolish death penalty, dies at 95

Former French justice minister Robert Badinter, who has died aged 95, saved many lives by dedicating his own to the fight against capital punishment, playing a pivotal role in banning the dreaded guillotine in 1981.

Robert Badinter (pictured), born on March 30, 1928, was a prominent French lawyer, academic, and politician who played a pivotal role in the abolition of the death penalty in France. His impactful career reflects his unwavering commitment to human rights and justice.

Badinter's journey in the legal realm began with his education at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand and the University of Paris Law School, where he developed a profound attachment for the principles that would shape his future endeavors. After completing his studies, Badinter embarked on a career marked by dedication to justice.

Owing to the Nazi persecution of Jews in Occupied France, Robert's father, Simon Badinter, was arrested by the Gestapo in Lyon on February 9, 1943. Robert, 14, went looking for his father and was almost arrested. Simon Badinter was deported on March 25, 1943. He died shortly after his arrival at the Sobibor concentration camp. Robert's uncle was deported to Auschwitz, where he was murdered by the Nazis.

Academic & Politician


Robert Badinter eventually became a professor and taught at several French regional universities, before being appointed, in 1974, to the Sorbonne Law School where he taught until 1994. Alongside his academic career, he founded the law firm Badinter, Bredin & Partners in 1965, where he practiced until he became Justice Minister in 1981.

In the early 1970s, Badinter gained recognition for his involvement in high-profile legal cases, establishing himself as a formidable legal mind. His reputation led him to political circles, where he became a key figure in the Socialist Party. In 1981, when François Mitterrand assumed the presidency, Badinter was appointed as Justice Minister.

It was during his tenure as Justice Minister that Badinter achieved one of his most significant milestones—the abolition of the death penalty in France. The journey toward this landmark decision was arduous, requiring meticulous legal arguments and strategic political maneuvering.

In 1981, Badinter presented a bill to the National Assembly seeking to abolish the death penalty. The proposal faced intense opposition, with passionate debates echoing through the chambers. Badinter, however, remained resolute, relying on factual and ethical arguments to sway opinions.

Right to Life


One of the key elements in Badinter's argument was the belief that the death penalty violated the fundamental right to life, enshrined in the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. He emphasized that capital punishment did not deter crime and, instead, perpetuated a cycle of violence. Badinter's stance was grounded in a commitment to justice that extended beyond retribution.

The legislative process was an uphill battle, requiring Badinter to navigate through deeply ingrained beliefs and historical perspectives. His unwavering dedication and persuasive arguments ultimately prevailed. On September 17, 1981, the French National Assembly voted in favor of abolishing the death penalty, marking a historic turning point in the country's legal landscape.

Robert Badinter's role in this achievement solidified his legacy as a champion of human rights. His influence extended beyond France, inspiring global conversations about the morality and efficacy of the death penalty. Badinter's dedication to justice, backed by factual and principled arguments, reshaped legal paradigms and left an indelible mark on the landscape of human rights in France and beyond.

Witness to an Execution


In the early 1970s, Badinter was actively involved in high-profile legal cases, defending individuals facing capital punishment. His experience as a lawyer played a pivotal role in shaping his perspective on the death penalty. One of the defining moments of his career — and mission — was witnessing the guillotine execution of one of his clients, an event that left a profound impact on him.

Buffet and Bontems


In 1972, Badinter ardently advocated for Roger Bontems, who, alongside fellow inmate Claude Buffet, faced prosecution following a tragic hostage-taking incident at the Clairvaux detention center that resulted in the loss of two lives among the prison staff. Despite Roger Bontems' role being categorized as that of an accomplice during the trial, he was sentenced to death and subsequently executed. This occurred despite the fact that Bontems had not directly caused the deaths of the nurse and prison guard. 

Badinter was haunted by his failure to save Bontems from the guillotine, and the case changed his stance on the death penalty "from an intellectual conviction to a militant passion". Revolted by these judicial killings, Robert Badinter described the trial and its bloody aftermath in a book, The Execution, published in 1973.

The experience of witnessing an execution by guillotine reinforced Badinter's conviction that this form of punishment was inherently cruel and incompatible with fundamental human rights.

Patrick Henry


Five years later Robert Badinter helped convince a jury not to execute Patrick Henry, a Frenchman, who had gained notoriety for his gory involvement in the 1976 kidnapping and murder of an 8-year-old boy named Philippe Bertrand. 

Badinter became an instant hate figure for many French people, who were baying for Henry's head.

Despite the heinous nature of the crime, Badinter approached the case with a commitment to upholding the principles of justice and human rights. He strategically turned the case into a trial of the death penalty, calling in experts to describe in grisly detail the workings of the guillotine.

"Guillotining is nothing less than taking a living man and cutting him in two," he argued in front of the jury.

His previous personal encounter with the brutal nature of capital punishment had considerably fueled Badinter's determination to advocate for its abolition. He recognized the gravity of the task at hand – not only as a legal advocate but also as a moral crusader against state-sanctioned executions.

Badinter, consistent with his broader views on capital punishment, emphasized the futility of the death penalty as a means of achieving justice. The Patrick Henry trial became a platform for Badinter to articulate his belief that state-sanctioned executions only perpetuated a cycle of violence and revenge based on Lex Talionis.

The verdict in Patrick Henry's case stirred public debate and controversy. While Henry was found guilty of the crime, Badinter's defense efforts successfully spared him from the guillotine. Instead, Patrick Henry was sentenced to life in prison.

Decriminalizing Homosexuality


Robert Badinter played a significant role in the process of decriminalizing homosexuality in France. As Justice Minister under President François Mitterrand, Badinter was instrumental in advancing progressive legal reforms, including the repeal of laws criminalizing homosexual acts between consenting adults.

Before the legislative changes, homosexuality had been a criminal offense in France. The legal framework against same-sex relationships was deeply rooted in societal prejudices and discriminatory practices. Badinter, known for his commitment to human rights and social justice, sought to address these issues through legal reforms during his tenure.

In 1981, shortly after taking office as Justice Minister, Badinter championed the effort to abolish laws criminalizing homosexual relationships between consenting adults. The key initiative was the amendment to Article 331 of the French Penal Code, which criminalized same-sex acts. Badinter's push for reform aligned with broader societal shifts towards greater acceptance and recognition of LGBT rights.

Badinter's advocacy for the decriminalization of homosexuality involved navigating through political challenges and societal norms. He worked to build support for the amendment, emphasizing the principles of individual freedom, privacy, and equality before the law. His legal arguments and persuasive skills were crucial in garnering the necessary political backing for this progressive change.

The amendment to Article 331 was eventually passed by the French National Assembly on July 4, 1982. This legislative milestone marked the end of criminal penalties for same-sex relationships between consenting adults in France. It was a significant victory for LGBT rights and a reflection of Badinter's commitment to legal reforms that promote equality and human rights.

Robert Badinter's role in legalizing homosexuality in France underscores his broader dedication to dismantling discriminatory laws and fostering a more egalitarian society for all. His efforts in this regard contribute to his legacy as a key figure in the advancement of human rights and legal reforms in France.

Until his last breath


A towering figure in French public life, he served as president of the Constitutional Council and as a member of the French Senate from 1995 to 2011.

The death penalty remained the bane of his existence until the end.

Badinter vowed he would work "until the last breath of life" to attain a global ban on the practice and continued to campaign against executions in China and the United States into his later years.

Source: DPN editor, Wikipédia, France24, February 9, 2024

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