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Jacques Vergès obituary: Lawyer whose notorious clients included Pol Pot, Klaus Barbie and Carlos the Jackal

Defending Klaus Barbie, he sought to emphasise what he saw as French collaboration with the Nazis

Jacques Vergès, nicknamed the “Devil’s Advocate”, was the prominent and outspoken lawyer who earned his unusual sobriquet by defending some of the most notorious criminals of the 20th century. Unrepentant and controversial throughout his life, his clients included Carlos the Jackal, Klaus Barbie and Pol Pot. He had recently defended the Khmer Rouge Head of State, Khieu Samphan, who faced charges of crimes against humanity.

Vergès was born in 1925 in Siam (now Thailand), one of twin sons of Raymond Vergès, a doctor, and a Vietnamese mother. Following his mother’s death when the children were three, he grew up on the island of La Réunion, where his father became the medical director.

At the age of 17 he travelled to Britain to join the Forces Françaises Libres (Free French Forces), which had been founded by Charles de Gaulle in London two years earlier. On 8 May 1945, when France was celebrating victory in Europe, clashes between French police and local demonstrators in the Algerian towns of Guelma, Kherrata and Setif led to a massacre. This jolted Vergès’ already growing political consciousness into action.

“I was still in the Resistance and I was terribly shocked. I didn’t understand how they [the Resistance] could fight Hitler then turn around and do that... The Nuremberg trials were taking place at the time... [but] it was clear that the victorious colonial nations were doing exactly what the Germans had done in France.” He would later write of the massacre, describing it as a “crime against humanity”.

Following legal studies in Paris, Vergès was admitted to the Bar in 1955.  Two years later he became the lawyer for Front de Libération Nationale (National Liberation Front), a group which campaigned for Algerian independence. He left the Communist Party after 12 years of membership, considering it to be “too mild”. His twin brother, Paul Vergès, went on to found the Communist Party of La Réunion in 1959, and led it until his retirement in 1993.

In July 1957, Djamila Bouhired, an Algerian activist, was sentenced to death by guillotine for the planting of bombs in the European areas of Algiers. Vergès was sympathetic to the anti-colonialist cause and offered to represent her.

By working both inside the court system, in his role as a lawyer, and outside the court, using the power of the media, Vergès was able to put the French government under enormous pressure. The tactics were successful, resulting initially in a deferral of the execution and subsequently ensuring her liberty. Bouhired was released in 1962 as part of the Evian agreement, which led to Algeria’s full independence from France. Bouhired and Vergès married the following year.

In early 1970 he told friends he was travelling to Spain, but then disappeared completely for a period of eight years. He later said that he had taken a holiday “very far to the East of France”. His true activity during that time remains a mystery.

In June 1983 he took on the defence of Klaus Barbie, the notorious war criminal, known as the Butcher of Lyon, who was the town’s chief during the occupation. Once again he sought to engage with the media, and adopted a strategy of what he called “attacking the prosecution”, turning the trial into a trial of France and its history, instead of just of Barbie and his crimes.

He sought particularly to emphasise what he saw as the country’s widespread collaboration with the Nazis, noting how the “French people considers itself heroic because of the exploits of a few heroes” and urged the French to “take a look at this period”. He went on to document the affair in his book Je Defends Barbie (1988).

In 1994 he represented the international terrorist Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, known as Carlos the Jackal after a copy of Frederick Forsyth’s novel The Day of the Jackal, which was found amongst his belongings. However, when questions were raised about his perceived complicity with Carlos, the lawyer was forced to step down from the case.

Vergès was the subject of the documentary film L’Avocat de la terreur (Terror’s Advocate, 2007) directed by Barbet Schroeder, in which the director asks, “Would you have represented Hitler?” to which his reply is “I would even have represented Bush!”. He also featured in the film miniseries Carlos (2010), in which he is played by Nicolas Briançon.

Two years ago, Vergès travelled to Tripoli with the lawyer and politician Roland Dumas to support a case by the victims of NATO bombings against President Nicolas Sarkozy. He spoke of a “brutal attack on a sovereign country” and said that he would be ready to support Muammar Gaddafi if he were brought to trial.

He wrote and co-wrote more than 30 books during his lifetime. His De mon propre aveu: Souvenirs et rêveries (“From My Own Confession: Memories and Daydreams”, 2013), co-authored with François Bousquet, was published in February.

Vergès died in Paris at the former home of Voltaire, the philosopher renowed for his attacks on the establishment. Christian Charrière-Bournazel, president of the National Council of Barristers, spoke of him as “a very brilliant lawyer, with great culture... very brave and very independent.”

Charrière-Bournazel continued, “What can be learned from Jacques Vergès is the combination of talent, courage, commitment and sense of contradiction with a respect for the other party. A lawyer is not a mercenary, he is a knight, and Jacques Vergès was a knight.”

Jacques Vergès, lawyer: born Ubon Ratchathani, Siam (Thailand) 5 March 1925; married 1963 Djamila Bouhired (marriage dissolved, two sons, one daughter); died Paris 15 August 2013.