Europe

Obituary: French lawyer Jacques Verges

Jacques Verges defending Lebanese Armed Revolutionary Factions activist George Ibrahim Abdallah in Lyon, France, 10 July 1986
Image caption Jacques Verges is seen here defending Lebanese activist George Ibrahim Abdallah in France in 1986

He started life as a French Resistance fighter in the war against Hitler and ended up defending Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie in court - just one of the many ironies in the life of Jacques Verges, who has died aged 88.

The lawyer was dubbed the "Devil's advocate" for his aggressive defence of Barbie and other high-profile clients accused of atrocities.

He was a child of the French colonies, who devoted his early career to communism and anti-imperialism, yet admired the French war hero General Charles de Gaulle.

He made famous the strategy of "rupture defence" whereby the lawyer seeks to break down the case against their client by undermining the very authority of the court.

Some would question how often justice was served by such tactics, but Verges succeeded in scoring political points, working the media in ways that impressed contemporaries.

And yet to the media he courted, he remains a man of mystery, who once seemingly vanished off the face of the Earth for eight years.

'Fighting lawyer'

Born in Thailand in 1925 to a diplomat father from Reunion and a Vietnamese mother, Verges served in the Free French Forces during World War II.

"I kept an image of an ideal France, fostered by my secular schooling, as the mother of arts, arms and laws," he was quoted as saying by Le Point magazine. "I could not resign myself to seeing it disappear under the German boot."

Image caption A French cartoon by L'Amiral shows the late Jacques Verges telling The Grim Reaper "Objection!" with the reply "Overruled!"

His leftist allegiances took him through the Iron Curtain to Prague, where he spent four years as a communist student leader in the early 1950s, when the Cold War was at its chilliest.

Returning to France, he qualified as a lawyer in 1955 and soon got involved in Algeria's bloody war for independence from France, which he saw as another noble cause.

In 1957 he used his rupture strategy to defend Djamila Bouhired, an Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) militant sentenced to death for bomb attacks on civilian targets.

After securing the FLN militant's pardon and release in 1960, he married her and they had two children. He also converted to Islam, a gesture which was possibly more political than religious, as he showed little sign of religiosity in later life.

His legal battles in Algeria were the most remarkable part of his career, in the opinion of fellow French lawyer Henri Leclerc, who qualified around the same time and was friendly with him for some 50 years.

"What he called the rupture defence was a defence without concession, where instead of trying to minimise the responsibility of those he defended - whom he considered combatants in a war - he carried the attack to the French state," Mr Leclerc told BBC News. "He was a fighting lawyer."

Nathan de Arriba-Sellier, a current French law student, takes a very different view of the tactic.

"His method is not a method of defence," he told BBC News. "It is more about taking a political stand than law. It is more about self-promotion than safeguarding the interests of those you represent. That is why I regard it as highly dubious."

Disappearance

The 1960s saw Verges supporting the new government in Algeria and sympathising with leftist revolutionaries around the developing world. At one stage, he even met Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong.

But in 1970, Verges abandoned his wife and children and simply vanished. It was an event he never explained.

Mr Leclerc told BBC News he was one of the last people to see him before he left, as well as one of the first to witness his return in 1978.

Asked where he had been, Verges would not say, and Mr Leclerc believes nobody knows to this day, despite rumours that he spent time in Pol Pot's Cambodia.

"It's highly amusing that no one, in our modern police state, can figure out where I was for almost 10 years," Verges said in an interview for Germany's Spiegel magazine in 2008, adding: "I enjoyed reading my obituaries."

Shortly after Verges's death from a heart attack in Paris, one French journalist tweeted: "It's the second time Verges disappears and still he won't tell us where he is."

Barbie

The Verges who returned in 1978 was different in several respects.

Image caption Verges was adept at dealing with the media

While he was soon defending leftist militants again - such as Carlos the Jackal, France's Action Directe group and Palestinian militants - there was little of the politics of the past. "Now it was activism for the sake of activism," according to Mr Leclerc.

On the other hand, the older Verges sought out causes with much greater international resonance, offering his services to war crimes suspects ranging from the late President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia to former Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Samphan.

But the case which perhaps caused the most controversy was that of Barbie, known as the "Butcher of Lyon" for his crimes as Gestapo chief in that city during the war.

Daniel Soulez Lariviere, another veteran French defence lawyer who interviewed Verges for books, told BBC News that some of Verges's questioning of the evidence against Barbie showed a "lack of taste".

And Henri Leclerc said "my relations with him were a mixture of affection and anger", adding: "he had in his provocative attitude something which could upset deeply".

The trial's 'trail'

While some would question why any lawyer would choose to defend a war criminal like Barbie, his deliberate exposure of French wartime collaboration in court was later commended by some Jewish historians of the Holocaust.

"Had it not been for ferocious counter-attacks launched by Jacques Verges... the prosecution would have walked away from the trial with nothing more than the conviction of a man already twice condemned to death by French courts," according to an article by the Jewish Virtual Library.

Speaking to Spiegel, Verges said: "The beauty of a trial can be measured by the trail it leaves behind, long after the sentence has been pronounced."

Henri Leclerc said Verges should be remembered for his "courage, his intelligence and his readiness to defend".

"Clients need to be represented even if they are monsters," Mr Soulez Lariviere remarked. "In our job as defence lawyers, we must find a guy who does that and if we don't find one, the profession is not fulfilling its duty."

Asked what, if anything, Verges meant for lawyers of the future, law student Nathan de Arriba-Sellier said: "He could be a model for students in terms of his exceptional journey: a past as a Resistance fighter, anti-colonialist convictions and his attachment to the fundamental principles of defence."

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