Born on 5 March 1925 in (now) Thailand was a French lawyer who earned fame continually from the 1950s. First as an anticolonialist communist figure and then for defending a long string of well-known clients, from an anticolonialist Algerian militant, Djamila Bouhired (his future wife) in 1957–1962 to former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan in 2008. His clients included both leftwing and rightwing terrorists, war criminals, and militants, including Holocaust denier Roger Garaudy, Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie (1987), and international terrorist Ilich Ramírez Sánchez a.k.a. Carlos the Jackal (1994). In 2002, Vergès offered to represent former Serbian President Slobodan Milošević, although Milošević declined any legal advice from any party. The media sensationalized Vergès’s activities with the sobriquet “the Devil’s advocate” and he himself contributed to his “notorious” public persona by such acts as titling his autobiography “The Brilliant Bastard” and giving provocative replies in interviews. He claimed that when asked if he would have defended Hitler, he replied, “I’d even defend Bush! But only if he agrees to plead guilty.”
Nothing touched him, including the bullets he knew were sent his way by the French secret service. Teeth clamped round a Cuban cigar, he would lean back and give any questioner his cool, quizzical, oriental stare. The blinds in his book-stuffed office were kept drawn, and out of the dim light loomed a legion of carved figures given by the African dictators he had defended. A crystal snake on his desk opened its jaws to strike; it reminded him of the snake of Amazonian myth, studded with the eyes of the men it had swallowed. All his clients, too, he said, were indelibly embedded in him.
His method in the courtroom was simple, but explosive. He accused the accuser. “Rupture” was his word for this: a recognition that, like Antigone facing Creon, the judge and the defendants shared no common values.
From 1970 to 1978, Vergès disappeared from public view without explanation. The wind had whispered to him, “Leave!” he said, and he had walked out on family, job and country. He refused to comment about those years, remarking in an interview with Der Spiegel that “It’s highly amusing that no one, in our modern police state, can figure out where I was for almost ten years.” Vergès was last seen on 24 February 1970. He left his wife, Djamila, and cut off all his ties, leaving friends and family to wonder if he had been killed. His whereabouts during these years have remained a mystery. Many of his close associates of the time assume that he was in Cambodia with the Khmer Rouge, a rumor Pol Pot (Brother #1) and Ieng Sary (Brother #2) both denied. There have also been claims that Vergès was spotted in Paris as well as in Arab countries in the company of Palestinian militant groups.
After Vergès’s return to normal life he resumed his legal practice, defending Georges Ibrahim Abdallah, convicted of terrorism, and Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie. The thrust of his defence in the latter case was that Barbie was being singled out for prosecution while the French state conveniently ignored other cases that qualified as crimes against humanity.
After the US-led coalition forces invaded Iraq in March 2003 and deposed Saddam Hussein, many former leaders in Saddam’s regime were arrested. In May 2008, Tariq Aziz assembled a team that included Vergès as well as a French-Lebanese and four Italian lawyers. In late 2003, Vergès also offered to defend Saddam if he was asked to. However, Saddam’s family opted not to use Vergès.
In April 2008, former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan made his first appearance at Cambodia’s genocide tribunal. Vergès represented him, using the defence that, while Samphan has never denied that many people in Cambodia were killed, as head of state he was never directly responsible.
“When you treat the accused as a monster, you give up trying to understand what happened. And if you don’t try to understand what happened, you deprive yourself of any reflection on how to stop that thing happening elsewhere. If the Americans had reflected on the moral defeat that torture represented for the French army in Algeria, what has gone on at Abu Ghraib would certainly never have happened.”
Vergès died in Paris during the night of 15 August 2013. He had been weakened by a fall several months ago.