COLUMN ONE : Proud to Be ‘the Devil’s Advocate’ : Jacques Verges is one of the most mysterious, feared and detested lawyers in France. He has embraced a clientele that includes Klaus Barbie, African dictators and now Carlos the Jackal.
Once every few weeks, Carlos the Jackal is brought from prison to the office of France’s top terrorist investigator for questioning. And it’s always a game. Carlos chatters aimlessly, tries to make his interrogator laugh, asks impertinent questions and answers none himself.
But the most controversial--some say most dangerous--man in the room isn’t the notorious international terrorist but rather his lawyer, Jacques Verges. The attorney, expressionless behind wire-rimmed glasses, doesn’t move and rarely utters a word.
“He is a terrorist, no better than Carlos,” said a top French official, who is always present during the sessions. “You can try to manipulate him, but Verges is very dangerous.”
Indeed, 69-year-old Jacques Verges is one of the most mysterious, but also most feared and even detested, lawyers in France, if not the world.
Often called “the Devil’s Advocate,” he wears the title proudly. His cast of clients has included the “Butcher of Lyon,” Klaus Barbie, as well as African dictators, Algerian revolutionaries, crooked French policemen and Palestinian terrorists.
The short, stocky lawyer with slicked-back black hair has represented, with what some consider to be unseemly delight, some of this country’s most unsavory characters. In nearly four decades of legal practice, he has seen 150 of his clients sentenced to death--though, he hastens to point out, not one has been executed. Of course, France no longer has a death penalty.
“A man is never all black or all white,” Verges said, defending his decision to represent such notorious figures. “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.”
Now Verges has a new case and a new public platform. Carlos the Jackal, the 45-year-old Venezuelan whose real name is Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, was arrested in Sudan in August and brought to France, amid great fanfare, to face terrorism charges covering nearly 20 years.
When Carlos first appeared in court here, he appointed Verges as his attorney because, he told the judge, “he’s a bigger terrorist than I am.”
“What is he referring to?” the judge asked Verges.
“Your honor, I think he may be referring to my ideas,” the attorney replied.
Later, Verges told a reporter, “Carlos is an extremely courteous man. I think it was a tribute to the fact that the battle of ideas is as dangerous--no, not as dangerous, but as important--as that of bombs.”
Carlos sealed his international reputation in 1975, when he kidnaped 11 oil ministers from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries during a meeting in Vienna and killed three guards. He took the hostages to Algeria, releasing them unharmed after receiving $20 million in ransom.
In France, Carlos is accused of killing two French counterintelligence agents who came to arrest him at his hide-out in Paris in 1975. He also faces charges of masterminding four terrorist attacks that killed 12 people and injured dozens in France, and of assassinating the French ambassador to Lebanon, all in the early 1980s.
He was sentenced to life in prison, in absentia, in France in 1992, but under French law he will have to be retried. Verges argues that France has no proof of Carlos’ links to terrorist bombings, although he acknowledges his client is vulnerable on the charge of killing the intelligence agents.
But it will be several years before Carlos appears in any court. Verges is launching a stiff legal challenge to Carlos’ arrest and extradition. And until that is resolved, he said, Carlos is refusing to answer investigators’ questions.
Verges and Carlos have a long, murky relationship. Though Verges maintains that the two first met in August, when Carlos was brought to France, they had been in contact, at least through intermediaries, since the mid-1980s.
That was when Verges took the case of two of Carlos’ top associates: his girlfriend, Magdalena Kopp, a former German Red Army Faction member, and Bruno Breguet. During the pair’s trial on weapons possession charges, Carlos sent a letter to the French government, threatening unspecified actions unless they were released. Soon after the letter arrived, two bombs exploded in France, killing six.
Kopp and Breguet, whom Verges called “soldiers in a noble cause,” were convicted of terrorist acts in 1983 and sent to prison, where Kopp knitted sweaters for Verges. When Kopp was freed two years later, she and Carlos were married.
But Verges is the figure in the Carlos affair who most fascinates the French. What shocks them is that he seems to like his clients and even admire them.
Verges describes Carlos, for example, as “a man of taste . . . who feels at home in a dinner jacket” and for whom “I have nothing but respect.”
During the trial of Barbie, the former Nazi captain who was convicted of crimes against humanity, Verges addressed him as “mon capitaine” and refrained from smoking in his presence “because he outranks me.”
Without doubt, Verges enjoys his reputation as a villain. He titled the first volume of his recollections “The Shining Bastard.” And he revels in the non-honorifics that the press bestows; the daily newspaper Liberation recently called him “a classic literary figure of treachery.”
Verges, who looks 20 years younger than his age, works from an opulent office in a rather unfashionable part of Paris’ Right Bank. Inside, leather-bound books, from classical French writers to Karl Marx, fill a large bookcase next to his desk. Wooden African figures--gifts from friends of a former client, the deposed dictator of Mali--tower over him.
In the anteroom he lovingly displays his collection of hand-carved chess sets, an appropriate metaphor for the strategic, enigmatic way he maneuvers through the French legal system.
Verges is, to be sure, a part of the Establishment that he fights so ferociously. Although he has represented penniless political victims of the state, he has clearly done well for himself financially.
The African governments and dictators he has represented, as well as other “boring financial cases,” pay the rent, he says, and support him in grand style. His tastes run to tailored jackets, Bordeaux wines, expensive restaurants, Baroque music and thick Hoyo de Monterrey cigars.
“I just prefer cashmere to polyester,” he said during a recent interview. “I prefer a peccary briefcase to one made of goatskin. Why not? I would be the worst actor if, just because I was defending an unemployed person, I arrived with holes in my shoes, not having bathed in a week.”
Verges is nothing if not self-assured.
“Verges likes Verges, and the rest follows,” said author Jean-Louis Remilleux, who conducted the interviews that formed the basis of Verges’ book of recollections.
“Let’s say,” Verges told Remilleux, “that I’ve always had esteem for myself.”
Verges’ storied past helps explain that esteem, for himself as well as for his politically charged clientele.
He and a twin brother were born in what is now Thailand. Their mother, who was Vietnamese, died when they were 3, and they were raised by their father, a doctor and French diplomat from the Indian Ocean island of Reunion.
During World War II, Verges and his brother hopped onto a French frigate in Reunion and joined the Free French Forces under Gen. Charles de Gaulle. Verges studied in Paris after the war, joined the Communist Party and became a leading figure in its international student movement, befriending, among others, the Cambodian dictator Pol Pot.
He became a lawyer in 1955, as the Algerian war for independence from France was beginning, and quickly took up the cause of Algerians suspected of terrorism. He left the Communist Party because it refused to support the Algerian independence movement.
His first Algerian defendant, Djamila Bouhired, was convicted and sentenced to death. When she was released, at independence in 1962, he converted to Islam, moved to Algeria and married her.
During the 1960s, he founded a left-wing magazine, African Revolution, was suspended from the practice of law for a year for arguing with a judge and began working with other radical causes, including defending militants from the Palestine Liberation Organization.
“I’m a bit like Don Juan,” Verges has 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.”
In 1970, he dropped out of sight. To this day, and to the great frustration of investigative journalists in France, no one knows what he did for the next eight years. He declines to discuss his disappearance, saying only that he “crossed to the other side of the mirror.”
In Paris, Verges lives alone and runs his own legal practice. He and his wife, from whom he has long been separated, frequently dine together. Their 27-year-old son recently graduated as an architect, and a 28-year-old daughter is finishing her doctorate in political science. (Verges’ twin brother is a member of the French Parliament, representing the department , or state, of Reunion.)
Even among his detractors, Verges is regarded as one of France’s brilliant legal minds. But his legal colleagues are often baffled by his odd array of clients, frightened by his evident distaste for Western values and angered by his grandstanding and apparent lack of sympathy for the victims of violence.
Soon after Carlos was brought to France, Verges and his own past, whether by design or chance, had supplanted his client’s troubles in the newspaper headlines.
Le Monde, the influential French daily, found evidence in files from the former East German secret service, the Stasi, that claimed Verges was an “operational agent” of the Carlos group in the early 1980s and an intermediary between the group and the French government. The files also contend that Verges, whose code name was Herzog, was “directly implicated” in a 1982 rocket attack on a French nuclear reactor.
Verges denies it all. But, in a counterattack, he accused French President Francois Mitterrand of ordering his assassination in the 1980s, a charge denied by the government but supported by a former anti-terrorist policeman. There is little doubt in France that he has been under government surveillance for years.
He also has represented a bizarre assortment of figures, from Third World dictators to people accused of killing them. He says that his appeal to clients from former French colonies, such as Algeria, Gabon and Mali, stems from his having lived in the then-colony of Reunion.
“I understand them,” Verges said. And the best lawyers “are those who know the anguish of being the accused.”
Verges says he selects cases primarily for their social and historical importance.
“I defended Mr. Barbie even though I once fought Nazism, because I think the occupation of France, and the French collaboration, has many consequences, even today,” he said.
But, he added, “I also accept cases that are not in the news, those that represent crimes of passion, because they also ask fundamental questions about mankind. It is my novelist reflex.” Among those cases was a Moroccan gardener accused, and convicted this year, of killing his rich employer on the Cote d’Azur.
But what makes Verges so controversial is his energetic advocacy for those clients whose goal is to undermine Western society.
“Of course, a lawyer must keep a certain distance from his cases,” Verges said. “But he also must be passionate. You can’t be a good lawyer without being passionate.”
That passion has led to what Verges calls his “rupture defense,” reserved primarily for terrorists. The central precept of that strategy is to ignore the facts of the case and instead challenge the authority of the court.
In the process, he says, he finds “the secret garden” in his clients and exploits it, becoming, in effect, a publicity man for his client. Even if he doesn’t win many cases--and he doesn’t--Verges considers it a victory if he can give his client’s political views a public platform.
“As an attorney, you have to understand the client’s reasons,” Verges said. “A terrorist doesn’t just plant bombs; he plants questions for society.”
And Verges has deep respect for people committed to political causes.
“The person who comes from an upper-middle-class family, who could have become a lawyer or a journalist but instead decides to run in the streets, kill and risk being killed for a cause, poses a question to society,” he added. “You can’t punish him without understanding the problem. And that’s my job.”
Many of Verges’ clients, from Palestinian combatants to Barbie, have shared a hatred of Israel, and others have been political opponents of the French government. But the attorney says there is no one, including Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, whom he wouldn’t defend.
“Why not Rabin?” Verges said. “I have defended terrorists and policemen, the bomb-planters and the victims. It’s a perfect curve.
“You know,” he continued, “people say Verges only defends people against the state. But all defendants have committed some crime against the state. If they hadn’t, they wouldn’t need a lawyer.”