Jacques Vergès, the French lawyer renowned for defending prominent war criminals and terrorists of the 20th century, passed away in Paris on August 15th. The lawyer, nicknamed “the devil’s advocate” for defending high-profile criminals such as the Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie, suffered a heart attack. The location of Vergès death was a final act in a life of courtroom performances, as Vergès passed away in the historic house of Voltaire – the famed French writer.
A gifted lawyer, at times both praised and deplored, Vergès spent his professional career defending the criminals deemed “indefensible” by the international community and publicly denouncing colonialism. He argued it was necessary to understand all criminals, no matter the extent of their wrongdoings, in order to prevent history from repeating itself.
Born in Thailand in 1925 to a Vietnamese mother and a French father working for the French consul on the island of La Réunion, it is often thought that Vergès had a personal stake in the cases of colonial exploitation as a result of his biracial background. Vergès’ first well-publicized cases, after becoming a lawyer in 1955, were in defense of Algerian terrorist bombers. Although most of his clients were convicted, Vergès’ methods of defending the accused questioned long-held legal definitions and garnered international attention. He challenged the court, advocating that the defendants were resistance fighters working for liberation. These methods, as a part of Vergès’ campaign against exploitation in the colonial world, became standards for his civil rights and colonialism cases.
Mr. Vergès’ most known case is his defense of the Gestapo leader, Klaus Barbie, known as the “Butcher of Lyon” due to his role in Nazi death camps. Barbie, who spent years in hiding after World War II, was located in Bolivia and extradited to France in 1983. By defending Barbie in war-crime trials of 1987, Vergès was repeatedly accused of protecting acts of genocide. Barbie was eventually convicted of 341 charges of crimes against humanity and sentences to life in prison, where he died in 1991.
The defense of Klaus Barbie reveals the elaborate confusion and contradiction following Vergès throughout most of his life. Joining Charles de Gaulle’s Free French Forces, Vergès had been a member of the Resistance from 1942 to the end of the war. Though he later joined the Communist Party, after studying law at the University of Paris, he maintained that his defense of Barbie was not an ideological one. During an interview with the New York Times at the time, Vergès reported that his case was one against the judicial system itself. “My law is to be against all laws. My morality is to be against all morality.”
Vergès continued to defend international terrorists and war criminals into the late 1990s. His other defenses include the Palestine liberation fighter, Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, better known as Carlos the Jackal, Khieu Samphan, Cambodia’s head of state during the Khmer Rouge, and Djamila Bouhired, an Algeria bomber, who he later married. Vergès later offered to defend both Saddam Hussein and Yugoslavian and Serbian president, Slobodan Milosevic, but both declined. When asked by a reporter of Britain’s The Guardian if he would have defended Hitler, he smiled and replied, “I’d even defend George Bush. But only if he pleads guilty.”
Jaques Vergès’ funeral took place on Tuesday, August 20th, in Paris, at the Montparnasse Cemetery. He is survived by two sons and one daughter.