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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
News
Elton John and David Furnish exchange marriage vows
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
News
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Billie Whitelaw was best known for her close collaboration with playwright Samuel Beckett, here performing in a Beckett Trilogy at The Riverside Studios, Hammersmith
people'Omen' star was best known for stage work with Samuel Beckett
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Wright has won The Apprentice 2014
tvThe Apprentice 2014 final
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Darrell Banks’s ‘Open The Door To Your Heart’
music
News
Detective Tam Bui works for the Toronto Police force
news
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor winner Ben Haenow has scored his first Christmas number one
music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executives - Outbound & Inbound

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'