Jacques Vergès, the flamboyant lawyer who earned the nickname the “Terror's advocate” for his defence of former Nazis, terrorist bombers and notorious dictators and their aides, has died of a heart attack aged 88.
Widely regarded as one of France's most brilliant, if provocative, lawyers, Vergès made a name for himself by accepting clients spurned by others as impossible to defend.
His high-profile client list included former Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie and Marxist militant Carlos the Jackal.
Mr Vergès died on Thursday in the Parisian house where 18th century philosopher Voltaire once lived, according to his publisher Pierre-Guillaume de Roux.
“Like Voltaire, he cultivated the art of permanent revolt and volte-face,” his publisher said in a statement.
Vergès was born in Thailand in 1925 to a French father and Vietnamese mother and grew up on the French-ruled Indian Ocean island of La Reunion, where the family moved after his father lost his job as consul because he married a foreigner, something forbidden at the time.
In the 1960s, Vergès defended Algerians fighting for independence at a time when an end to French rule in the North African possession was violently opposed by certain sections of French society.
As a Communist student leader, Vergès befriended Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge which was responsible for the genocide in Cambodia in which 2.2 million people died.
Vergès baffled his countrymen by agreeing to defend Klaus Barbie, head of the Gestapo in the city of Lyon who was twice sentenced to death in absentia for war crimes.
When Barbie fled France in 1944, Vergès was marching to liberate Paris with de Gaulle's Free French forces.
“If he (Barbie) had been at the end of the barrel of my gun, I would have shot him,” Vergès told Reuters in an interview in 2002. “Now I am simply doing my job as a lawyer.”
“I would have defended Hitler,” Vergès once said. “Defending doesn't mean excusing. A lawyer doesn't judge, doesn't condemn, doesn't acquit. He tries to understand.”
Other high profile clients included Lebanese militant Georges Ibrahim Abdallah and former Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, and he also gave legal advice to ex-Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic.
For some of his critics, Vergès' client list meant his hands were as soiled as those of the people he defended. In 2007, a French documentary about his life dubbed him the “Terror's Advocate”, a nickname that stuck.
“He died in the very room where Voltaire took his last breath,” said de Roux. “It was an ideal place for the final act of this born performer.”