He called his memoir “The Shining Bastard” and likened himself to the great men of fiction “who stand alone against the establishment.” The Washington Post once described him as “a man who aspires to Scoundreldom.”
Jacques Vergès, the French lawyer and enfant terrible known for his defense of the world’s most despised criminals, including the infamous Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie and the Venezuelan-born terrorist Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (better known as Carlos the Jackal), died Aug. 15 in Paris. He was reported to be 88.
Mr. Vergès died of a heart attack in the house where the philosopher Voltaire once lived, according to his publisher, Pierre-Guillaume de Roux, news agencies reported.
Mr. Vergès was born in Thailand to a Vietnamese mother and a Frenchman serving in the colonial diplomatic corps. Mr. Vergès claimed that his father lost his job because of the mixed marriage, and he said the sting of prejudice he experienced in childhood motivated his legal work on behalf of outcasts.
In a career spanning more than five decades, Mr. Vergès was one of the most enigmatic and provocative legal personalities in the world. He cultivated an air of mystery by vanishing for most of the 1970s, an absence that to this day — and despite the best efforts of investigative journalists — has never been explained.
To many, he was deeply infuriating, a headline-monger always ready with an audacious statement to draw attention to his clients and himself.
Defending Barbie, dubbed the “Butcher of Lyon” for his role in the deaths of thousands of Jews and French Resistance fighters during World War II, Mr. Vergès said he found him “a respectable man . . . unjustly condemned.”
In Carlos the Jackal, the Marxist-inspired radical who orchestrated a series of bombings and kidnappings in the 1970s and 1980s, Mr. Vergès saw “a man of taste . . . who feels at home in a dinner jacket.”
“I would have defended Hitler,” he told the German news magazine Der Spiegel in 2008. “Defending doesn’t mean excusing. A lawyer doesn’t judge, doesn’t condemn, doesn’t acquit. He tries to understand.”
Mr. Vergès first came to international attention in the late 1950s as an attorney for Algerians accused of terrorism in their quest for independence from France. Later clients included militants acting on behalf of Palestinian causes and members of left-wing terrorist factions in Germany.
“I’m a bit like Don Juan,” Mr. Vergès once said. “I love revolutions like he loved women. I like to go from one to the other, and I like them when they are young. When they get older, I lose interest.”
When not defending revolutionaries, he was an advocate of choice for the reviled. Mr. Vergès said he provided legal counsel to Khieu Samphan, the titular head of Cambodia’s widely reviled Khmer Rouge; Serbian leader and accused war criminal Slobodan Milosevic; and former Iraqi foreign minister Tariq Aziz, a top deputy to Saddam Hussein.
In melodramatic rants against capitalism, racism and the hypocrisy of Western society, Mr. Vergès often turned the courtroom into a theater of political grandstanding. Defending the accused Algerian terrorists, he argued that they fought for independence from colonial overlords in France and therefore were not subject to judgment under French law.
His signature courtroom strategy was to minimize his client’s alleged crimes by redirecting attention to other historical acts of violence. In the Algerian cases, he pointed to France’s use of torture in the North African nation.
In Barbie’s high-profile trial in France in 1987, Mr. Vergès dredged up the collaborationist history of Vichy France during World War II. He likened French colonial policy in Southeast Asia to Hitler’s persecution of Jews.
“Yellow people didn’t have to wear the yellow star,” he said, referring to the identifying symbol forced on Jews during Nazi rule. “It was written on their face.”
Another of his techniques was to humanize defendants who seemed indefensible. To Barbie, he said, “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.”
For all his swagger, Mr. Vergès seldom was vindicated at the bar. Barbie, for example, was sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity; he died in prison in 1991.
“There is an aspect of professional challenge,” he once told The Post of his client roster. “If I were a doctor, I would rather have done the first open heart surgery than have treated 1,000 colds.”
Jacques Vergès was born in Siam (now Thailand) on April 20, 1924, or March 5, 1925 — he said he was not sure of the date.
After his father left diplomatic service, the family moved to the French-administered island of Reunion, in the Indian Ocean. Jacques was about 3 when his mother died. He and a twin brother were raised by their father, a doctor who was active in the Communist Party and treated patients who could not afford hospital stays.
“My earliest memories are of a parade of physical suffering through the house,” he told the London Independent in 2004. “I saw people with leprosy, cancer and lupus; elephantiasis and bullet wounds.”
During World War II, Mr. Vergès joined Charles de Gaulle’s Free French Forces and served as an artilleryman in North Africa, Italy and France.
He later studied law in Paris, where his fellow students included the future Khmer Rouge leader who would be known as Pol Pot. Mr. Vergès would later recall the dictator as a “discreet, courteous, polite” man who “always enjoys a good laugh.” He once said the mass killings carried out in Cambodia under Pol Pot were lies perpetrated by newspapers that “always show the same heap of 30 skulls.” An estimated 1.7 million Cambodians died during Pol Pot’s brutal rule, from 1975 to 1979.
At the University of Paris, Mr. Vergès ascended to the presidency of the Association for Colonial Students. He also became a leader in a communist student union, but in 1957 he left the party because of what he considered its weak stance on the increasingly violent French policy in Algeria.
He represented numerous members of the anti-colonial National Liberation Front in Algeria. It was dangerous work — another lawyer helping the group was assassinated in Paris in 1959, and Mr. Vergès said he, too, was targeted by French security forces.
One of Mr. Vergès’s first important clients, Djamila Bouhired, was convicted of blowing up an Algerian cafe frequented by French soldiers. She was sentenced to death but was saved from the guillotine in 1958 by French President RenéCoty, who commuted her sentence to life imprisonment. Mr. Vergès had played a backstage role generating international opposition to Bouhired’s execution.
Bouhired was released after Algeria’s independence in 1962 and three years later married Mr. Vergès, who had converted to Islam. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, he emerged as a pit bull of the French legal system, at times insulting judges and embracing censure.
Later, in the ’60s, Mr. Vergès became a defense attorney for Palestinians accused of hijacking and other forms of terrorism. Then, in early 1970, he vanished and was not seen publicly for eight years. Some observers speculated that he was in Cambodia with Pol Pot or involved with various terrorist networks. Mr. Vergès said that he “crossed to the other side of the mirror.”
He resurfaced in 1978 in Paris, where he returned to his legal work. He defended the Lebanese terrorist leader Georges Ibrahim Abdallah, who was sentenced to life in prison for complicity in plots to kill American and Israeli diplomats. “This verdict is a declaration of war for Arab fighters,” Mr. Vergès asserted upon hearing the sentence.
In 1982, he defended Magdalena Kopp, the girlfriend of Ramírez Sánchez (Carlos the Jackal) and a member of Germany’s Red Army faction, who was accused of arms possession. She was convicted and sent to prison but was freed in 1985, before marrying Ramírez Sánchez.
Ramírez Sánchez was captured in Sudan in 1994 and sentenced to life in prison, despite Mr. Vergès’s defense of him as “someone who has symbolized the situation in the Middle East for the past 20 years.”
Mr. Vergès’s defense work kept him in high style, and he expressed fondness for Cuban cigars, pricey restaurants and tailored suits. He remained on good terms with his wife, from whom he was separated during his absence in the 1970s. They had two children. A list of survivors could not immediately be confirmed.
In the latter stages of his career, he represented Holocaust denier Roger Garaudy and a succession of African leaders, including Togolese strongman Gnassingbe Eyadema, who were accused of human rights abuses.
Mr. Vergès figured prominently in Marcel Ophuls’s Oscar-winning 1988 documentary, “Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie,” and was the subject of his own documentary, “Terror’s Advocate” (2007), directed by Barbet Schroeder.
“A man is never all black or all white,” he once told an interviewer. “In the heart of the worst criminal there is always a secret garden. And in the heart of the most honest man, a nest of the most terrible reptiles.”