The charismatic and rebellious barrister, whose client list read like a Who’s Who of modern terrorism, armed resistance and international infamy, was as famous for his own intriguing life story as his impassioned performances in court. In his later years he kept up those performances as Paris stage shows. Vergès was born in Thailand in 1925 to a French doctor father and a Vietnamese mother. His father had to quit his position as French consul because interracial marriages were not allowed by the French authorities. He grew up on the Indian Ocean island of Réunion, inheriting from his mother a fierce sense of the anti-colonial struggle and outrage at non-white people having to step aside in the street. At 17, he volunteered and fought for the French resistance.
In 1957, Vergès made his name defending the FLN, Algeria’s National Liberation Front independence movement fighting French colonialism. He fell in love with his client, Djamila Bouhired, a revolutionary who was tortured and sentenced to death for her role in planting bombs in cafés in Algiers. After she was freed, they married and had two children.
Vergès went on to defend members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Germany’s Red Army Faction.
In 1970, he famously disappeared for eight years before resuming his Paris law career. He referred to it as “my holidays”, with speculation ranging from a stint in Cambodia advising Pol Pot to training as a KGB spy or a tour of Palestinian training camps in Libya, Yemen or Jordan.
In 2007, the director Barbet Schroeder won awards for his documentary, Terror’s Advocate, on Vergès’s life.
Vergès, often referred to as “devil’s advocate”, defended figures ranging from Barbie, the Nazi “Butcher of Lyon”, later convicted on 341 charges of crimes against humanity, to the former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan – Vergès argued that the deaths of up to two million Cambodians in the 1970s did not amount to genocide.
He was briefly hired to represent Saddam Hussein, defended Magdalena Kopp of Germany’s Red Army Faction, who had been caught in Paris with explosives, and briefly acted for her boyfriend Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, alias Carlos the Jackal, the Venezuelan terrorist mastermind who carried out a series of bombings, kidnappings and hijackings.
In a 2008 interview in the Guardian, Vergès rejected the term “monster” referring to Barbie and said it was important to understand the human side of his clients.
“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 officer 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 died in Paris during the night of August 15. He had been weakened by a fall several months ago.
Source: The Guardian, August 17