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Saddam Circus Coming to Town By: Michael Radu
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, April 14, 2004

French celebrity lawyer Jacques Vergès has announced that, “at the request of the (Hussein) family,” he has decided to serve as the defense lawyer of Saddam Hussein at his upcoming trial for genocide and similar charges. The trial, to begin sometime this year, had already promised to be interesting and revealing; but Vergès’ presence ensures that it has a chance of becoming an international, ideological and political nine-ring circus.

Concepts such as genocide, terrorism and the right to a fair trial will all come under scrutiny during the trial, enveloped in a fog of Stalinist “anti–imperialism,” Vergès trademark. It is thus important to understand who Jacques Vergès is, why is he taking Saddam’s case, how he will handle the case and what the implications of the coming judicial spectacle will be.


For those who believe that communism, and even more so, Stalinism, are long dead, Vergès is a living fossil, his ideology a Jurassic Park of 20th century criminal thought.  Vergès’ biography [1] is revealing of a certain trend in European, especially French, intellectual environment, where “justice” is a matter of ideology, fashion and politics rather than morality and law. It is only in such an environment that a lawyer who lost most of his cases (before France abolished capital punishment in 1984, Vergès was nicknamed “Monsieur guillotine,” in recognition of the fate of many of his clients) became famous, had his books published by the most prestigious editors, [2] and is taken seriously in his relentless assaults against the very concepts of Western law and democracy.


Jacques Vergès was born in1925 in Thailand, where his father, Raymond, was serving as a French diplomat. Raymond was a native of the French island department of La Réunion in the Indian Ocean, whose inhabitants are mostly of mixed race (Asian, European, African); his wife, Jacques’ mother, was Vietnamese. That racial background gave Jacques a perennial claim to victimhood (or “racism”).


In 1937, Raymond Vergès founded the Réunion Communist Party (PCR), the local branch of the metropolitan organization. Jacques’ twin brother, Paul, jailed as a young man for the murder of a political opponent of his father, was a deputy for the Party. Since 1996, he has served as a Senator in the French Parliament and remains President of the Regional Council of Réunion and head of the PCR, which has become Thailand’s second largest party.


Jacques himself joined the Communist Party as a teenager, and by 1949, was president of the AEC (Association of Colonial Students), a Communist front, where he befriended a fellow colonial student from then-French Indochina, Saloth Sar—better known as Pol Pot. The connection with the Khmer Rouge continues to this day, with Vergès offering to defend Pol Pot’s associate and fellow Sorbonne contemporary alumnus Kieu Samphan.


Between 1950 and 1954 Verges was in Prague, then the center of Soviet global propaganda and ideological training, as leader of one of Moscow’s youth front organizations. During that period he had the high honor of meeting Joseph Stalin himself.


Upon return to France, Vergès left the Communist Party and began his road to fame as a defense lawyer for Algerian terrorists. The most famous of those, and a case that won him the plaudits of the Left, was that of Djamila Bouhired, who had been implicated in the bombing of an Algiers café that resulted in numerous fatalities. Bouhired was sentenced to death, but the combination of a leftist media campaign and a weak Socialist government led to her release and subsequent marriage to Vergès.


At a time when France was at war, Vergès openly supported, as well as defended, terrorists and their French accomplices. For that reason he was jailed for two months in 1960 and temporarily lost his practicing license. 


Since then, Verges’ clients have included Nazi criminal Klaus Barbie (sentenced to life in prison); fellow radical lawyer and accomplice of the Baader–Meinhof Gang, Klaus Croissant; terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez a.k.a. Carlos the Jackal (sentenced to life in prison, 1994); ex-Marxist philosopher and convicted Holocaust-denier Roger Garaudy (convicted and fined, 1996); Slobodan Milosevic (2002) and now, logically enough, Saddam.


What do these clients have in common with their lawyer? The same characteristics as another Verges associate, the ex-Nazi, now Islamist sympathizer Francois Genoud—who, as owner of the Arab Commercial Bank in Switzerland, was the apparent paymaster in the Barbie and some Palestinian terrorist cases. They are ideologues and defenders (Garaudy), practitioners (Milosevic, Barbie, Saddam) or would-be practitioners (Bouhired, Kelkal).of mass murder or genocide. Their ideology is totalitarian at its core, and they share yet another common trait of 20th century European totalitarianism and present Islamism–hatred of Jews and Israel.


It is this background that gives away Vergès’ likely tactics at Saddam’s trial and indeed explains his taking up the case. The radical lawyer has waged a life-long campaign against Western values and freedoms, and the fate of his clients is not a major concern to him–they are just replaceable tools for a greater goal. He needs a political platform, not a legal success. Hence, the desire to have Saddam's case tried by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, while fully aware that the court has no jurisdiction over Iraq.


As (mostly self-) appointed lawyer for Milosevic, Vergès has claimed that the International Court trying the Serb leader is inherently illegitimate and biased, because it receives outside donations from George Soros, the United States and Saudi Arabia. Otherwise, he claims, the Court would ask for testimonies from Messrs Clinton, Blair, Schroeder and Chirac, “Because in Dayton they recognized Mr. Milosevic as a respectable and valid interlocutor.” Expect the same in a Baghdad court—after all, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld did talk to Saddam in the 1980s, and the West helped him against Iran at the time. As a defender of Palestinian terrorist hijackers of El Al planes in 1969, Vergès claimed that the terrorists' acts were political, not criminal, and the fault of Israeli aggression.


All this combines with Vergès’ personal and peculiar views of the justice system in general and of morality itself. Thus, in his book, Beauty of Crime, he writes: “Between the dogs (prosecution) and the wolf (defendants) I’ll always be on the side of the wolf – especially when he is wounded.”


In many ways Vergès has been a pathfinder for radical lawyers everywhere, with his approach to the defense of terrorists–a path followed by American and German lawyers for decades. He blurred the lines between defense, representation and ideological comradeship with the accused, and tried to transform a legal case against individuals into a global tribune against “the system,” to put the court, the judges and democracy on the dock. True to his habit, he has already made it clear that he will try to bring world leaders on the dock in Baghdad – and has already found enablers in the media speculating that such tactics “could be a huge embarrassment for the United States, France and other countries.” [4]


That would, of course, depend on the Iraqi judges and rules to be decided in Baghdad. If the clamor by Western human rights groups and defense lawyers succeeds in making the Saddam trial an international affair, they will do what they did for decades–offer Vergès another platform for his anti-Western psychopathic obsessions and Saddam a chance for revenge against his persecutors in Washington and London and, perhaps, a chance to save his skin. If, however, common sense and morality set the rules, Jacques Vergès will not only lose the case–he is used to that–but, given his age, also the last chance to promote the counter values of a century of totalitarian ideologies.




[1] For useful biographical information, go to http://www.essentialresults.com/article/Jacques_Verges


[2] Such as On judicial strategy (1981) ; The Beauty of Crime (1988) ; I defend Barbie (1988) and I have more memories than if I would be one thousand years old (1999).


[3] ST.B., Le Parisien, 27 mars 2004, p. 6


[4] “World leaders should take stand in Saddam trial: lawyer”, in The Sidney Morning Herald, December 20, 2003 http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/12/19/1071337168638.html?from=storyrhs

Michael Radu is Senior Fellow and Co - Chair, Center on Terrorism and Counterterrorism, at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.

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