The Jackal: Bogeyman who can still terrorise from the witness box

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The face became an icon of the 1970s, but `Carlos the Jackal' has rarely been seen in public before. Tomorrow in Paris, the Jackal - Ilich Ramirez-Sanchez, the most celebrated terrorist of all time - goes on trial. John Lichfield writes from Paris that he may yet have a few surprises to spring.

Carlos is 48 now, paunchier than ever and exhausted by more than three years of solitary confinement in a French jail. In his rare up-to- date pictures, he resembles the Venezuelan businessman he might have been, like his two brothers Lenin and Vladimir. Instead, he invented a new trade: "professional international terrorist".

It was Ramirez-Sanchez who shot and wounded Joseph Sieff, president of Marks and Spencer in St John's Wood in 1973; it was Ramirez-Sanchez, by then known as Carlos, who led the kidnapping of 10 Opec oil ministers in Vienna in December 1975; it was Carlos who orchestrated, a score of attacks for Soviet bloc governments in the late 1970s and 1980s (but nothing like as many as he was credited with).

The Soviet empire collapsed; Carlos became an embarrassment to the leaders of the Palestinian cause which he had passionately (or cynically?) espoused. In 1994 he was "sold" to the French government by his Sudanese hosts, in return for unspecified political favours.

Why did the French want him so desperately after all those years? Partly, it was a political coup ahead of the 1995 presidential election. Partly, the French security services had a personal score to settle: the murder in Paris in June 1975 of two officers of the DST, the internal security service.

Other trials are expected to follow but it is for these murders that Ramirez-Sanchez will stand trial in Paris from tomorrow. Jury selection begins today.

The fact that there will be a jury, which is unusual in terrorist cases in France, is telling. The terror network which Carlos ran, with connections in Japan, Germany and the Middle East, is history. He does not scare people any more; not physically. But he may still be capable of causing severe embarrassment, especially to the French government which captured him.

Ramirez-Sanchez and his 29 lawyers say that he plans to use the trail to reveal the secrets of his trade-offs with western governments in the 1980s. "He's going to say things which will hurt," says one of his leading lawyers, Isabelle Coutant-Peyre.

Maybe. Other than the silk shirts and cigars sent from his doting family in Venezuela, one of Ramirez-Sanchez's remaining pleasures is to tie lawyers in knots of sophistry. It is said that none of his legal team, all of whom are giving their services for free, knows who will play the principal role in the trial.

Ilich Ramirez-Sanchez was born in Venezuela in October 1949, His father, a successful lawyer, was a committed Marxist-Leninist (hence the names given to his sons). According to one version of his life, Ilich was trained as an international terrorist as a teenager in Cuba in the late 1960s; according to another version, he was a political dilettante - part radical, part playboy - until he discovered the Palestinian cause in 1970.

What truly drove Carlos remains a mystery. Although a self-appointed agent of the oppressed, he was partial to luxury throughout his career.

In an book based on French trial documents and East German records - Carlos, by Bernard Violet - one of his French lawyers insists that his client is a true Latin American revolutionary, "Through him, you can imagine what Che must have been like, or the early Fidel Castro."

Another of his lawyers, quoted at length by Le Figaro, was less impressed: "He's finished, a beaten man. All that he's got left is this rather desperate, kind of judicial, guerrilla warfare. It's his last manipulation."