French lawyer Jacques Vergès has represented some of the 20th
century's most notorious criminals. Now, as his own mysterious past
comes under scrutiny in a new documentary, he explains to Angelique
Chrisafis why he defended them
Thursday May 15 2008
The lawyer Jacques Vergès sits back in his Paris office, lights a
Cuban cigar and recalls the highlights of his notorious client list.
He defended the Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie, advised the Serbian
leader Slobodan Milosevic and acted for the terrorist mastermind
Carlos the Jackal. A Buddha head given to him by friends in
Cambodia's lethal Khmer Rouge regime watches over him from his desk.
Asked if he would have defended Hitler, he smiles, puffs, and says:
"I'd even defend George Bush. But only if he pleads guilty."
Vergès is France's most controversial lawyer, an enigmatic
83-year-old charmer, and a walking Who's Who of 50 years of terrorism
and armed resistance. He fell in love with women bombers he defended,
rubbed shoulders with everyone from Chairman Mao to Che Guevara and
Pol Pot. The French secret service tried to kill him in the 1950s. In
the 1970s, he vanished for eight years, adding another layer of
mystique to his status as a celebrity "devil's advocate".
No one has ever established the extent to which Vergès did, or did
not, cross the line into the shadowy world of his clients and their
armed struggles. He began his career as an impassioned leftwing
anti-colonialist, defending the bombers of the Algerian fight for
independence, then later went on to act for Barbie, the "Butcher of
Lyon" as well as questionable African figures such as the Togo
strongman Gnassingbé Eyadéma. He likens his job to that of
Shakespeare: presenting characters on the courtroom stage and making
the public empathise with and understand them, no matter what their
But the most fascinating character is himself. In France's most
eagerly awaited documentary of the year, Terror's Advocate, the
director Barbet Schroeder has put Vergès himself in the dock, tracing
the light and dark aspects of his career. Vergès's life is the story
of the past half-century of terrorism - from cafe bombings to plane
hijackings and hostage-takings - and the role of lawyers in the
courtroom dramas that followed. It won a Directors Guild of America
award and a César, France's equivalent of the Oscar. The film's
release in Britain tomorrow is timely, given that Vergès is currently
defending the former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan - he
argues that the deaths of up to 2 million Cambodians in the 1970s did
not amount to genocide. He was also briefly hired to represent Saddam
Hussein, and is about to start defending the former Iraqi
vice-president, Tariq Aziz.
In a rare interview in Vergès's Paris mansion - he lives above an
office filled with chessboards, tapestries, books and exotic
artefacts given to him by clients - the lawyer describes how he would
creep into Paris screenings of the film and sit at the back to see
how people reacted. He would be delighted when people recognised him
and warmly shook his hand at the end. The film's impressive French
box office was partly due to the intriguing notion the Vergès has
defended an array of indefensible "monsters". But he hates the term.
In 1987, when defending Barbie, who was later convicted on 341
charges of crimes against humanity, he wanted to make the court see
his human side.
"I said to Barbie: 'What I want is for you to take on a human
dimension. You're not a monster. You're not innocent, but neither are
you a monster. You're an officer ... of an occupying army in a
country that resists. You're no better and no worse than a French
officer in Algeria, an American officer in Vietnam, a Russian
officier in Kabul.'
"When you treat the accused as a monster, you give up trying to
understand what happened. And if you don't try to understand what
happened, you deprive yourself of any reflection on how to stop that
thing happening elsewhere. If the Americans had reflected on the
moral defeat that torture represented for the French army in Algeria,
what has gone on at Abu Ghraib would certainly never have happened."
Vergès says he has a "split personality", pulled between the
developing world and Europe. He was born in Thailand to a French
doctor and a Vietnamese mother. His father had to quit his position
as French consul because interracial marriages were not allowed by
the French authorities, and Vergès grew up on the Indian Ocean island
of Réunion, where his mother died when he was three. But she
bequeathed him a fierce sense of the anti-colonial struggle, a sense
of outrage at non-white people having to step aside in the street.
At 17, he volunteered to serve in De Gaulle's Free French forces,
earning a reputation as a hero. Later, at the Sorbonne, he briefly
joined the communist party and was a leader in the anti-colonial
student movement. His student acquaintances included Pol Pot, later
to become head of the Khmer Rouge. "He was like the other Khmer
students: very discreet, very polite, very charming, very courteous.
That's all I can say."
In 1957, Vergès made his name defending the FLN, Algeria's National
Liberation Front independence fighters, who were struggling against
French colonialism, and whose bombs - planted in cafes and bars - set
the tone for world terrorism for the following 50 years. He fell in
love with his client Djamila Bouhired, the beautiful bomber and
revolutionary icon who was tortured and sentenced to death. She was
finally freed and he married her. He developed his trademark
technique of challenging the legitimacy of the court and turning the
trial into a debate on the injustice of colonialism and judges'
hypocrisy. He would go on to defend members of the Popular Front for
the Liberation of Palestine and Germany's Red Army Faction.
Then, in 1970, he did a vanishing act. He told his wife and children
he was going to Spain and wasn't seen for eight years until he turned
up in Paris and resumed his law practice in 1979 as if nothing had
happened. The film examines some of the theories around the
disappearance Vergès calls "my holidays". Was he in Cambodia advising
Pol Pot? Training as a KGB spy and going in and out of East Germany?
Or was he a Chinese agent in Cambodia, where he ended up in prison?
One theory is that he was in Palestinian training camps in Libya,
Yemen or Jordan. Schroeder establishes that he was spotted back in
Paris several times during the time of his disappearance, but Vergès
tells me he can't talk about his "holidays". Does it surprise him
that no one has ever worked it out? "That is the biggest mystery and
it shows the failure of our special services." Unless you were
working for them? "They and I would have to be extremely good in that
case, considering that when I defended the FLN [in Algeria], they
almost assassinated me."
In 1982, Vergès defended Magdalena Kopp of Germany's Red Army
Faction, who had been caught in Paris with explosives. She was the
girlfriend of Carlos the Jackal - Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, the
Venezuelan who made career out of bombings, kidnappings and
hijackings. Schroeder's documentary traces the love story between
Vergès and Kopp, whom he visited in prison every week. Vergès tells
me: "There was a profound friendship, and a friendship between a man
and a woman always has something special. But you must understand
where that friendship came from. She was in prison for four years, I
visited every week, because she didn't speak French. And in a woman's
prison, there is much less respect for politics than in men's
prisons, where gangsters respect terrorists. I was her only breath of
fresh air for four years - that creates a very strong link, beyond
Once freed, Kopp returned to Carlos, who in 1994 was kidnapped in
Sudan by French secret agents and sent to prison for life. Vergès
says he was Carlos's lawyer for five months before they fell out over
his defence. "Between me and Carlos there's not a lot of friendship."
Vergès insists no one has ever proved any of the supposed shady links
he had to terrorist groups he defended. He denies that he has given
way to greed and acting for corrupt African figures. He denies he is
interested in money, saying he doesn't own his home and his only
indulgences are Cuban cigars and linen suits.
A lawyer must be credible and stay true to himself, he says. "If
Klaus Barbie had asked me to plead the superiority of the Aryan race
I would have said no, because I would have been renouncing myself."
His moral code is a question of the "elementary reflexes of human
dignity and honour". He says: "There are things that a man of honour
can't do. When I'm given a letter, I'm not going to open it."
Vergès maintains that he is a celebrity and not a pariah in France
because the French admire anyone who kicks against the establishment.
"Whoever is a lone man pitted against the rest, the French like that."
Schroeder, who also made the acclaimed Hollywood films Barfly, Single
White Female and the Claus von Bulow epic Reversal of Fortune, has
long been intrigued by secrets, charm and the powers of persuasion.
But in this film, he has gone back to his roots, and the style of his
acclaimed 1974 documentary about the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. He
interviewed Vergès and his clients and friends at length and
describes the film as a "political thriller". But he found Vergès far
more "complex and difficult" than Idi Amin. "He's very clever, a
master manipulator ... He was a mystery to me. It wasn't the people
he defended, it was the fact that he started out very courageous, he
started as a great idealist and he changed." Did Vergès tell him the
truth? "No," he says.
· Terror's Advocate is released tomorrow.