Obituary: Jacques Vergès / French lawyer known as 'devil's advocate'

March 5, 1925 - Aug. 15, 2013

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Jacques Vergès, the French lawyer who embraced anti-colonial causes and the role of devil's advocate on a world stage to defend war criminals, terrorists, dictators and other notorious villains of the 20th century, died Thursday in Paris. He was 88.

The cause was a heart attack as he was preparing to dine with friends, according to his publisher, Éditions Pierre-Guillaume de Roux. He died in the Parisian house where the Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire once lived, the publisher said in a statement.

Is a killer a terrorist or a patriot? Can laws be used to judge good and evil? For more than 50 years, Mr. Vergès raised such questions in defense of clients who claimed to be acting for political causes, although they were charged with genocide, crimes against humanity, bombings, hijackings and the murder of innocents.

They included the Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie; the terrorist Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, aka Carlos the Jackal; and Cambodia's Khmer Rouge head of state, Khieu Samphan. Mr. Vergès also sought to defend former presidents Saddam Hussein of Iraq, who was executed for crimes against humanity, and Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, who represented himself in a war-crimes trial but died before a verdict.

Like many of his clients, Mr. Vergès, the son of a Vietnamese woman and a French diplomat, was an enigma. Assassins targeted him. There were hints of ties to secret services, to terrorists he defended and to Mao Zedong, Che Guevara and other revolutionaries. He was a confidant of Pol Pot, the tyrant blamed for the deaths of at least 1.7 million Cambodians. He married a terrorist he saved from the guillotine, but left her and his two children and disappeared for eight years.

"He's a slippery man," director Barbet Schroeder, who made "Terror's Advocate," a 2007 documentary on Mr. Vergès and terrorism as a political weapon, told The New York Times in 2007. "You can never touch him. He loves the mystery. The reason is that there are certain things he cannot talk about. He would be in deep trouble if the truth came out."

In a career that paralleled the postwar disintegration of colonial empires in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Mr. Vergès rose to prominence in the late 1950s defending Algerians accused of terrorist bombings. Instead of contesting the evidence of French prosecutors in court, he insisted that the defendants were resistance fighters in a just war of liberation and challenged the legal and moral legitimacy of the trials.

While most of his clients were convicted, the trials drew international attention to Mr. Vergès, and long after Algerian independence in 1962 his tactics served as a blueprint for his cases, which became public platforms to indict France and other Western nations for what he called crimes of racist colonialism and the exploitation of Third World peoples.

In the late 1960s, Mr. Vergès broadened his horizons, defending Palestinians charged with attacks on El Al aircraft in Athens and Zurich. He later represented members of the Red Army Faction in Germany, whose bombings he called the work of "soldiers in a noble cause."

Mr. Vergès' most famous case was his defense of Klaus Barbie, the wartime Gestapo leader known as "the Butcher of Lyons" for his role in the torture, execution and deportation to death camps of thousands of French citizens. After years in hiding, during which he is believed to have assisted Western intelligence services, Barbie was extradited from Bolivia to France in 1983.

At Barbie's war-crimes trial in 1987, Mr. Vergès virtually ignored the charges, and attacked Israel, France and other nations for committing "crimes against humanity" that he called "more serious" than those ascribed to Barbie. Barbie was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, where he died in 1991.

Jacques Vergès and his twin brother, Paul, were born March 5, 1925, in Ubon Ratchathani, Siam, now Thailand. Their Vietnamese mother died when they were 3 and their father, Raymond Vergès, a French diplomat, raised them on the Indian Ocean island of Réunion. Paul became a founder of the Réunion Communist Party and a member of the European Parliament.

In 1942, with his father's encouragement, Jacques sailed to England, joined Charles de Gaulle's Free French Forces and fought in the Resistance.

After the war, he studied law at the University of Paris, joined the Communist Party and in 1949 became a leader of an anti-colonial student movement. His student friends included Khieu Samphan and Saloth Sar, the future Pol Pot. In the early 1950s Mr. Vergès led a Communist youth organization in Prague.

Returning to Paris, he became a lawyer in 1955 and gained fame defending Algerian guerrilla fighters. In a notorious case, Djamila Bouhired was convicted in 1957 of killing 11 people in an Algiers bombing and sentenced to death. As she awaited the guillotine, it was revealed that she had been tortured during questioning. Mr. Vergès campaigned for a reprieve. Many world leaders, including the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, demanded her release. Her execution was postponed, and in 1962 she was released.

In 1965, Mr. Vergès and Bouhired were married. They had two children, Meriem and Liess.

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