• France's news in English
 

'Devil's advocate' lawyer Jacques Vergés dies

Published: 16 Aug 2013 08:32 GMT+02:00

Jacques Verges, the provocative French lawyer who earned the nickname "Devil's advocate" by defending a series of high-profile criminals from Klaus Barbie to Carlos the Jackal, died in Paris
on Thursday aged 88.

Verges died of a heart attack around 8:00pm (1800 GMT) in the house where 18th century enlightenment philosopher Voltaire once lived - an appropriate setting for an iconoclast who devoted his life to defending unpopular causes, according to his publishing house Pierre-Guillaume de Roux.

"The ideal place for the last theatrical act that was the death of this born actor who, like Voltaire, cultivated the art of permanent revolt and volte-face," said the publisher in a statement.

Christian Charriere-Bournazel, the head of France's main bar association, told AFP that Verges had lost a lot of weight and mobility since a fall a few months ago.

"We knew the end was near but we didn't know it would come so soon," he said.

Born in Thailand in 1925 to a father from Reunion island and a Vietnamese mother, Verges was a communist as a student and later supported the Algerian National Liberation Front in its fight for independence from France.

After securing the release of Algerian anti-colonialist militant Djamila Bouhired, he married her.

Verges went on to become a high-flying lawyer, making headlines around the world thanks to a client list that includes some of the most infamous names of modern times: Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie, Venezuelan revolutionary Carlos the Jackal, former Iraqi deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz and ex-Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic.

One of his last high-profile cases was the defence in 2011 of his long-time friend, Cambodia's former communist head of state Khieu Samphan, who faced charges of crimes against humanity over the 1975-1979 Khmer rule.

Then aged 86, the short, bespectacled Verges delivered a pithy riposte to prosecutors who had spent two days detailing the horror the country suffered under the Khmer Rouge regime, during which up to two million people died through starvation, torture and execution.

The prosecution's version of events "sounded like a novel written by Alexandre Dumas about what happened in Cambodia," said Verges in a 10-minute speech, laced with a hint of irony and an occasional suppressed smirk.

Attacking prosecutors' "fantastical view of reality", he told the court: "Remember what monsieur de Talleyrand, Napoleon's foreign minister, another bandit, said: 'Everything that is excessive is vain'."

"Everything you said was excessive and therefore vain. May the tribunal remember that. I hope I haven't wasted your time, thank you very much," concluded Verges in a trademark summing-up.

Verges' life story reads like a novel, but there is one chapter that he prefers to leave unopened: from 1970 until 1978, when he left his wife and children and disappeared.

He has referred to this period as "the dark side" of his life, leading to much speculation about these missing years.

Among the more persistent theories are suggestions that he fostered ties with Palestinian militants, that he passed through Congo -- or that he lived in Khmer Rouge Cambodia.

Verges himself said he "passed through to the other side of the mirror."    

"It's highly amusing that no one, in our modern police state, can figure out where I was for almost 10 years," he told German newsweekly Spiegel in a 2008 interview.

On his return, he became the champion of extremists from both left and right.

He was an advocate of Palestinian violence against the "imperialism" of Israel but he also defended neo-Nazi bombers and leapt at the chance to expose what he saw as establishment hypocrisy in the Barbie trial.

Most of his clients lost their cases but Verges' flair was in courtroom provocation, attacking the prosecution and maximising the publicity of his defendants' cause.

Once asked by France Soir in 2004 how he could defend Saddam Hussein, after he said he was prepared to represent the Iraqi dictator, Verges replied: "Defending Saddam is not a lost cause. It's defending (then US president George W.) Bush that is the lost cause."

Verges, a lover of thick Robusto cigars and author of some 20 books, had his colourful life portrayed in the 2007 Cannes Film Festival documentary "Terror's Advocate" and starred in his own play in France, called "Serial Defender."

In his Spiegel interview, Verges caused a storm when he said "I would have defended Hitler."

AFP/The Local (ben.mcpartland@thelocal.com)

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Tête-a-tête - Tu versus vous
Isn't it time France scrapped tu and vous?
"Did you just say tu to me?" Photo: Shutterstock

Isn't it time France scrapped tu and vous?

Everyone who has ever lived in France knows all about the social minefield that is tu and vous - and that goes for the French too. The Local France’s editor Ben McPartland and French language expert Camille Chevalier-Karfis argue over whether it’s time to ditch the protocol. READ  

Racism in France
France unveils plan to fight 'intolerable' racism
The French government will reveal on Friday how it plans to tackle racism in France.Photo: AFP

France unveils plan to fight 'intolerable' racism

UPDATED: France’s top ministers, lead by the PM Manuel Valls, unveiled on Friday the country's new plan to tackle rising racism and anti-Semitism in the country. Incidents of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia have rocketed since January’s terror attacks. READ  

Huge blaze cuts Paris train link to CDG airport
Rail traffic to the Charles de Gaulle airport has been disrupted. Photo: AFP

Huge blaze cuts Paris train link to CDG airport

UPDATED: The RER B train line linking Paris to Charles de Gaulle airport was cut on Friday after thick black smoke from a huge fire filled the skies to the north of Paris. READ  

Visiting Paris
The weirdest objects you can see around Paris
Just one of the unusual things you can see around Paris. Photo: ollografik/Flickr

The weirdest objects you can see around Paris

From horned birds to pinched nipples, Paris has more than its share of wacky and offbeat objects to see. Join us as we take a closer look at some of the most unusual things you can find in the city's museums, shops... and even sewers, courtesy of the folks behind the Paris Pass sightseeing package. READ  

Metro whizzes through Paris with doors open
A Paris Metro hurtles through a tunnel with the doors open. Photo: Le Traineau/YouTube

Metro whizzes through Paris with doors open

Or at least that's what a video that has appeared on YouTube appears to show. The French capital's transport chiefs have launched an investigation. But is it real? READ  

When French tourists behave badly abroad
A quokka in western Australia. Photo: OzinOH/Flickr

When French tourists behave badly abroad

As two French tourists are fined for burning a small Australian mammal, we take a look at some of the worst examples of the French misbehaving abroad - including orgies in Pompeii to near-naked dancing in Roman fountains... READ  

US families of Holocaust victims sue SNCF
An SNCF train, stationed in northern France. Photo: Alfenaar/Flickr

US families of Holocaust victims sue SNCF

Descendants of Holocaust victims have filed a lawsuit in the US claiming France's national railway seized property of tens of thousands of Jews and others sent to Nazi concentration camps from France, according to court documents. READ  

'French Snowdens' to get protection under law
Edward Snowden, seen here talking via an online feed, has been in limbo in Moscow ever since his passport was revoked a few years ago. Photo: AFP

'French Snowdens' to get protection under law

French MPs have voted through a new amendment to the controversial surveillance bill, which would allow whistleblower spies to be protected by law. READ  

One million bees killed in French road crash
The honeybees drowned in their own supply of unprocessed honey. Photo: Autan/Flickr

One million bees killed in French road crash

An estimated one million honeybees were killed after the vehicle that was transporting them crashed into a car in southern France. However tens of thousands survived only to attack emergency rescue teams. READ  

France joins European probe into Facebook
Photo: Maria Elena/Flickr

France joins European probe into Facebook

European data protection authorities have joined forces to probe Facebook's privacy controls, a French watchdog said on Thursday, putting the popular US social media giant under fresh pressure. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
National
Sexual harassment rife on Paris trains
National
Marine Le Pen makes Time 'most influential' list
International
Torching animals to threesomes: French tourists behave badly abroad
Cannes Film Festival line-up revealed
National
Cartoonist's book slams 'Islamophobia swindlers'
National
More French women than men lured by Isis
Society
Les Entrepreneurs: We chat with the founder of Paris Picnic
National
Edith Piaf celebrated at Parisian exhibit
How the health reforms will change life in France
Gallery
Naked protests: The French love to take their clothes off to make a point
Gallery
IN PICTURES: Then and now - the site of the Alps plane crash
Travel
So why would anyone really want to live in Lille?
Opinion
Why the French should be very worried about new spying powers
National
Spain's newest export to France: Vultures
Did a row over stolen veg lead to the murder of a British expat in France?
VIDEO: French rail chiefs SNCF furious after the Paris-Roubaix race
National
What does Zlatan think of his suspension?
Sport
What the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris would look like
Culture
IN PICS: Take a look inside France's new 36,000 year-old tourist site
International
Did the Pope reject France's envoy to the Vatican because he was gay?
Cyberjihad: Hacking of French TV channel was 'a step up'
Politics
PROFILE: Jean-Marie Le Pen - France's far-right master provocateur
National
France's fatigued 'anti-terror' police resort to calling sick
National
Dipping baguette in a bowl of coffee! - French habits foreigners don't get
Strike latest: Scores of flights cancelled in France
Features
New Calais migrant camp 'the worst in Europe'
Society
ASK THE EXPERTS: So why are the French always on strike?
National
French air traffic control strike: Tourists face travel chaos
Culture
Which stars will land an invite to the Cannes Film Festival?
Technology
Paris holds film festival for blind cinema goers
National
Paris wants to triple its number of cyclists by 2020
National
Readers tell us of the joys of living in France's 'expat no-go zones'
Cannes Film Festival says no to red carpet selfies for 2015
Health
France to ban unlimited refills of soft drinks
National
Germanwings co-pilot 'searched suicide info'
The enclosed terraces of Paris cafés - where the smoking ban is ignored.
France's 'winter truce' has been called off, but what exactly is it?
National
What's on in France: Ten things to do in April
National
Paris bistros crack down on loud tourists. Surely it's an April Fools
National
The key reforms of France's healthcare bill
National
Here's the place to get the best baguettes in Paris
More French pensioners head abroad to settle
Is it possible to make the most of fine food in Paris on a student budget?
Latest news from The Local in Austria

More news from Austria at thelocal.at

Latest news from The Local in Switzerland

More news from Switzerland at thelocal.ch

Latest news from The Local in Germany

More news from Germany at thelocal.de

Latest news from The Local in Denmark

More news from Denmark at thelocal.dk

Latest news from The Local in Spain

More news from Spain at thelocal.es

Latest news from The Local in Italy

More news from Italy at thelocal.it

Latest news from The Local in Norway

More news from Norway at thelocal.no

Latest news from The Local in Sweden

More news from Sweden at thelocal.se