Jacques Vergès, the French lawyer who earned the nickname “Devil’s advocate” by defending a series of high-profile cases including Carlos the Jackal and Georges Ibrahim Abdallah, died in Paris on Thursday aged 88.
Vergès died of a heart attack around 8:00pm 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 Vergès 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, Vergès 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 fighter Djamila Bouhired, he married her.
Vergès went on to become a high-flying lawyer, making headlines around the world thanks to a client list that includes some of the most controversial cases 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.
He was also the lawyer for Lebanese communist Georges Ibrahim Abdallah, who has been jailed in French custody for 29 years for his alleged complicity in the murder of two diplomats from Israel and the United States.
“His imprisonment is a scandal, a shame for France,” Vergès told French channel iTélé in January, in a typical instance of his provocative style. “It is time for French justice to act, not like the whore of an American pimp, but like an independent justice.”
Vergès’ 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.
Vergès 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 militants from both left and right.
He was an advocate of the Palestinian struggle against the imperialism of Israel.
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 Vergès’ flair was in courtroom provocation, attacking the prosecution and maximizing 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, Vergès replied: “Defending Saddam is not a lost cause. It’s defending (then US president George W.) Bush that is the lost cause.”
Vergès, a lover of thick Robusto cigars and author of some 20 books, had his colorful life portrayed in the 2007 Cannes Film Festival documentary “Terror’s Advocate” and starred in his own play in France, called “Serial Defender.”
Source: AFP, Al-Akhbar