ROBERT CHALMERS INTERVIEW: TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS; WHETHER YOU ARE A NAZI
HENCHMAN, INTERNATIONAL TERRORIST OR A DICTATOR
Independent on Sunday (London) - May 9, 2004, Sunday
BY: ROBERT CHALMERS
[GRAPHIC] Clockwise from
left: Verges (front) at the trial of Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie, 1987; Isabelle
Coutant-Peyre (right), a one-time lover of Verges who later became involved with
his client Carlos the Jackal (left); and Verges (wounded) after a demonstration
in Paris over the death of Patrice Lumumba, 1961 Left: Saddam Hussein, shortly
after his arrest by US forces. Below, from left, a few of the lawyers friends
and acquaintances: Mao; Slobodan Milosovic; Tariq Aziz; and Pol Pot
Shaking his hand, I tell Jacques Verges, it's impossible not to feel a direct connection to all those other palms he's pressed. His friends have included such men as the Cambodian dictator Pol Pot, and Illich Ramirez Sanchez, better known as Carlos the Jackal, who blew up Marseille railway station and shot dead - among others - two French policemen: a soldier, as Verges once described the Venezuelan terrorist, "in a noble cause". Then there's the Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie, who the lawyer addressed as "Mon Capitaine" and joined in a rendition of "Lili Marlene" in the German's cell during his 1987 trial, and Slobodan Milosevic, who has called on his support throughout his trial in The Hague. Many assumed that Verges ("I like him," Carlos the Jackal once said, "because he is a bigger terrorist than I am") had exhausted his capacity to shock. Recently, however, they were proved wrong, when the French barrister announced that, at the personal request of the imprisoned dictator's family, he is preparing the defence of Saddam Hussein.
"I carry the memory of all my clients inside me," says the man who called his autobiography The Shining Bastard. "We are bonded forever."
Verges's imposing office, here in his Paris chambers, is lined with bookcases and decorated with African sculptures. The room is dimly lit, with blinds drawn over the windows. On his desk there is a crystal snake. It faces away from him, its head rearing as though poised to strike at any visitor. It was a gift from Marlon Brando's daughter Cheyenne, explains Verges (which sounds like "says"). She hanged herself nine years ago; the lawyer had unsuccessfully defended her half-brother, who was charged with the murder of her lover.
"That ornament reminds me of the snake in Amazonian legend," he explains. "Its skin is encrusted with the eyes of every human it has swallowed." Like the mythical serpent, he says, "I observe the world simultaneously through the eye of an infant and of an old man; an Indian and a conquistador."
His assassination has been commissioned at least twice by the French secret services; the former agent Paul Barril told me he had personally seen an order to kill him.
"How old are you?" I ask Verges.
"Seventy nine," he says. "Or I might be 80."
"Don't you know?"
"Some say I was illegitimate, so my father changed the date on the certificate."
Seventy-nine or 80, you've been lucky."
"I'm not lucky," he says. "I'm bullet-proof."
The lawyer is suspected by some of having been involved in more than a legal capacity with certain clients, notably Carlos the Jackal; it has also been suggested, by Le Monde, that he helped plan an aborted rocket attack on a French nuclear-power station - charges he vehemently denies.
It isn't easy to imagine this urbane figure - who quotes Voltaire, De Quincey and Oscar Wilde in his elegant, rather formal French - handling explosives. There is something about Jacques Verges - I'm not sure if it's his natural composure, his Asiatic features, or simply the sight of a small man with such a large Havana - that recalls the actor Edward G Robinson, and especially his character in the 1945 melodrama The Woman in the Window. Robinson plays a fastidious man of refinement, introduced as the picture of respectability. We first see him sending up whorls of cigar smoke from his leather armchair in a gentlemen's club. Twenty minutes later, he is dumping the body of a murdered woman in a copse.
Verges ponders this comparison.
"In France they like a man who stands alone against the establishment," he says. "Like D'Artagnan. Or Arsene Lupin, the gentle- man burglar."
Brought up on the island of Reunion, in the Indian Ocean, Verges came to Paris after serving with De Gaulle's Free French army. He is recognised, even by his enemies, as one of the greatest defence lawyers of his time. He says he was appointed to begin work on Saddam Hussein's case about a month ago.
"His nephew called me," he explains. "He said that he felt his uncle had been publicly humiliated, in contravention of the Geneva Convention."
Verges himself has had no contact with the former Iraqi leader.
"We believe him to be in Qatar," he says. "But we don't know for certain where he is. He has been described by Mr Rumsfeld as a prisoner of war. In which case Saddam Hussein is entitled to the privileges of any such prisoner, including the right to silence."
The nephew - Ali Barzan al-Takriti, who lives in Amman - "told me that he was afraid the Americans would kill his uncle, because in the event of any free exchange in open court, the US is aware that it will be heavily implicated in his crimes."
Murdering their prisoner would hardly enhance the Americans' global reputation.
"My worry isn't that he will be killed by automatic gunfire," Verges replies, "but that he might suffer a convenient accident which results in a stroke or a heart attack. His nephew told me - and I quote - This danger is imminent. I ask you to make our fears public, so as to render his murder less likely.'"
Verges flourishes his thick Havana like a wand.
"In the opinion of his family, the Saddam Hussein we have seen paraded on television is heavily drugged. When a man is a prisoner of people who obey neither faith nor law," he adds, "they can despatch him in ways that do not require a machine gun or a knife."
"Are you saying that Bush and Blair are faithless and lawless?"
"I am saying that in this affair they have lied from the start. That's the first thing. We all know that their stated motive for war was bogus. And then there is the question of this public ex- hibition of their captive. It shows no regard for human dignity. You may recall that last month General Myers, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, referred to Fallujah as a rat's nest'. I don't recall even Hitler," Verges adds, "calling enemy combatants rats'."
The US has declared its intention to try Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The process is theoretically under way: the director of the tribunal has been named as Salem Chalabi, a US-educated lawyer, and nephew of Ahmad Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress. But the location, time and judicial framework remain undecided. Chalabi's mandate could be revoked, if and when power is handed over to a new administration on 30 June this year.
"For a fair trial to be held in Iraq," Verges says, "it would require a penal code and a democratically elected administration. Neither exists."
Saddam Hussein will be defended by a team of lawyers, Verges chief among them, if the Iraqi's family is allowed any say in the matter. He is already representing former deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz ("a gentleman") who surrendered a year ago. That said, there is probably no lawyer the allies would less like to see coaxing the former leader to reminisce on those happier days when the US counted him among its friends. His proclamation of his leading role is thought by some to be premature: it's possible the Americans might seek to exclude him, for instance by stipulating that all participating attorneys hold a permit to practise in Iraq.
"If and when a trial does take place," Verges says, "I will argue that Mr Rumsfeld cannot escape being charged as a co-conspirator, since he was the intermediary for arms sales to Saddam Hussein. I am preparing the case on that basis."
Though Verges is frequently referred to as the Devil's Advocate, not all of his clients have been monsters. I first met him in the early 1990s, when he was defending Omar Raddad, a Moroccan gardener charged with killing his employer, an heiress who appeared to have scrawled the words "Omar Killed Me", in her own blood, as she lay dying in the basement of her villa in Nice. It turned out to be the only convincing evidence against him. Raddad had a credible alibi; the police, having read the message, didn't trouble themselves with other scene of crime duties, such as taking fingerprints. The illiterate Moroccan got 18 years; he served seven before he was released in 1998 on the personal order of President Chirac.
Verges's critics argue that, had Raddad's lawyer confined himself to a simple examination of the facts, his client would have been acquitted. But Verges employed his trademark technique of what he calls rupture - challenging the legitimacy of the court, and turning the trial into a debate of the injustice that has most exercised him throughout his career - the crimes and hypocrisies of colonialism, of which he sees the United States as the most shameless perpetrator.
"A few days ago," Verges says, when I mention Raddad's name, "I had a call from a man who claimed he was a friend of Omar's. He said he had news from Morocco that he had to deliver in person."
When his visitor arrived, "he was not an Arab but an American. He was about 45. He looked like a college graduate. He explained that he'd never met Raddad, but he knew the name would get him into my office. Then," the lawyer goes on, "he handed me a file. It is a CIA document of 200 pages or so. It clearly demonstrates, and gives precise details of, high- level contacts between the US and Saddam Hussein dating back to the days before he was in power."
At this point I notice that, in a vase next to his crystal snake, a bunch of wilting tulips are leaning towards both of us at a suitable angle for concealing a microphone.
"Don't worry about the tulips," Verges says. "If there is one office in the world which is under US surveillance at the moment, it's this one."
"So what was in this document?"
"It's in English," Verges said, "a language I don't speak fluently. I've sent it to be translated. But I can tell you that the papers contain a word-for-word exchange between an Iraqi diplomat and Henry Kissinger. And Kissinger is basically saying: "Our intelligence is disheartening - it indicates that you are supported by the USSR. Conditions exist whereby contacts may be re-established; the US and Iraq can become allies."
"Whatever the level of western hypocrisy in this affair," I ask Verges, "how can you contemplate defending a man who ordered the gassings at Halabja and who, according to a study by the group Human Rights Watch, was responsible for the death of up to 100,000 Kurdish non-combatants in the first eight months of 1988 alone?"
"My position on that, as a defence lawyer," replies Verges, "is that you must first prove to me those acts were committed, and secondly that they were committed by Saddam Hussein. But in any case - even if those things were done on his orders - they were done with weapons supplied by the US. If you provide a country with poison gas and biological weapons it is for one purpose only. When a crime is committed, you can't pursue only one of the guilty parties."
"The charge against the US being?"
"Complicity, by reason of supplying the means to commit a crime. I don't see how, in an international court of law, the Americans could begin to justify supplying Iraq with chemical weapons. And there is absolutely no doubt that they did."
"While we're on the subject, wasn't it Jacques Chirac who provided Saddam Hussein with nuclear materials, for a power station, at a time when it was known he might have alternative ambitions for those supplies?"
"Yes," says Verges, "but nothing came of that, because the Israelis destroyed the material on the ground."
The Americans, he insists, are guilty of complicity "at every stage". "They gave Saddam Hussein the green light for the attack on Kuwait," he alleges, referring to remarks made by April Glaspie, US ambassador to Iraq, eight days before the August 2 1990 invasion; Glaspie told Saddam Hussein the US had "no position" on the dispute between Iraq and its neighbour.
"After the Gulf War," he adds, "the US dropped leaflets inciting the Shi'ites and the Kurds to rebel and, when they did rise up, abandoned them. I will argue that the ultimate effect of that was to make the US co-conspirators with Saddam Hussein." Then there were the economic sanctions, says Verges, "that resulted, in that famous assessment by the World Health Organisation, in the death of 500,000 children."
Is Tony Blair, according to his thesis, guilty of indictable offences?
"I believe I can demonstrate that the Geneva Convention is breached in Iraq on a daily basis. These are war crimes that can be punished under international penal accords to which Britain is a signatory but the US is not. I am not ruling out action against the British on those grounds."
Throughout this conversation, Verges remains softly spoken and impassive. It is his ability to mask his fiercely rebellious instincts - the kind that normally stoke the hottest of heads - and maintain a glacial, austere demeanour, that makes him a uniquely fascinating figure, and an anti-hero for many of his compatriots. Discretion, wit and intelligence have allowed Maitre Verges, to give him his formal lawyer's title, to operate at the highest level of the establishment he professes to despise.
One of the few lawyers who is constantly pestered for autographs, Verges tells me how he recently came out of court in Aix-en-Provence, and walked across a crowded square.
"A colleague who was with me said, It's amazing how people look at you - not as a lawyer, but as an accomplice." Verges smiles. "Then he added: So what do you say, Maitre - shall we carry on stirring the shit?'"
Not everybody finds him so congenial. There are those who maintain that, at certain times in his extraordinary life, Verges's place in court should have been not the advocate's bench, but the dock. During the trial of Carlos the Jackal, when the judge asked what the accused had meant when he called Verges a terrorist, the lawyer replied: "I believe he is referring to my ideas, your honour."
I mentioned this exchange to the journalist Jean-Louis Remilleux, who collaborated on The Shining Bastard. "The most terrifying thing about Verges," Remilleux told me, "is not his ideas. It's his life."
Verges was born in Siam (now Thailand) where his father, a physician, was French consul. But Raymond Verges was dismissed from the diplomatic service after he married Jacques's mother, who was Vietnamese: inter-racial marriages were prohibited by the French authorities.
Jacques Verges had cause to rage at injustice before he could speak the word. Shunned by polite society, his father left to practice medicine in the French colony of Reunion, where his wife died of fever when Jacques and his twin brother Paul (a leading Communist politician in Reunion) were three. Raymond's most desperate patients, the lawyer recalls, had no means of paying medical bills and came directly to the family home.
"My father treated them all," he says. "My earliest memories are of a parade of physi- cal suffering through the house. I saw people with leprosy, cancer and lupus; elephantiasis and bullet wounds."
He has few recollections of his mother, but the legacy of his infancy has not been forgotten.
"My mother had no need to wear the yellow star," he told the judge, during Klaus Barbie's trial in Lyon. "She was yellow from head to foot."
In 1942, when he was 17, "dreaming of wounds and bruises", he sailed into Liverpool and enlisted with the Free French Army, as an artilleryman. After the War he spent 11 years in the French Communist Party where he was "a particularly violent and uncontrollable influence", according to one history of the movement. Though he left the party in the 1950s, his opinions retain a certain robustness.
"When I see that photograph of Stalin smiling and shaking Ribbentropp's hand," Verges explains, in The Shining Bastard, "I say to myself: there is a man who knows how to stand alone."
He completed a history degree in Paris, where he first met Pol Pot: the kind of guy, according to Verges, "who enjoys a good laugh". Newspaper photographs, he complains, "always show the same heap of 30 skulls. I do not believe there was genocide."
In 1951 he became secretary of the International Union of Students in Prague (where he rubbed shoulders with Honecker, Mao and Mandela) then spent four years travelling with his first wife, Colette. On his return to France, he joined the Paris bar and espoused the cause of Algerian independence. His first client in Algiers was Djamila Bouhired. A 22-year- old suspected of having blown up a cafe in the name of the FLN (National Liberation Front) - widely regarded in France as a terrorist movement akin to ETA or the IRA. She had been brutally tortured by French police. Friends say her lawyer "fell head over heels in love" at the first interview. Bouhired was sentenced to death in 1957, but pardoned the following year. The couple married in 1965. Throughout the Algerian War he was chief lawyer for the FLN.
For Verges, members of the FLN, like members of Hamas, or Iraqi "insurgents", are comparable to his former comrades in the fight against the German occupation of France; he has long adhered to the philosophy that a terrorist is somebody who has a bomb but not an air force.
One of his fellow combatants in Algeria was the leading French cartoonist "Sine" - Maurice Sinet.
"There was always so much to do - people to smuggle across the border, money to collect," Sinet told me. "But when we were back in Paris, we used to unwind. We'd go out on the Champs-Elysees in my Mercedes. Verges would take my water pistol and pick off pedestrians. After a bombing, because he knew his phone was tapped, he'd call me and say: Hey Bob. Did you see that mortar hit the power station? One hundred and eighty!' With Verges," he explained, "the end justified the means. He used to tell me: "You know what your trouble is? You've got principles". He didn't have any. He was wild."
The pair have since fallen out.
"Sinet's sulking," says the lawyer, "because I'm not anarchistic enough."
The real problem seems to be the incrementally homicidal nature of Verges's client list.
"In Algeria," says Sinet, "he wasn't a law- yer. He was a brother and a comrade. And he frightened a lot of people. In those days he was frightening the right people. It's horrendous, the people he will defend these days. There have to be other ways of making money."
Verges has made his fortune by serving some of Africa's less-palatable leaders. They included General Gnassingbe Eyadema of Togo, whose human- rights record is dismal even by the standards of West African despots, and Moussa Traore of Mali, the first African leader to turn machine-guns on his own citizens. In 1961, Verges was beaten up by police while protesting against the killing of Patrice Lumumba - the Prime Minister of the Independent Republic of Congo. Six years later he was acting for his executioner, Moise Tshombe.
"Why should I worry," the lawyer asks, "about defending men who have been welcomed on the steps of the Elysee, as friends of the French Republic?"
In 1970, Verges was living with Djamila and their two children in Algiers, acting as a defence lawyer for the PLO, when he casually announced that he was taking a short trip to Spain. He wasn't seen again until he resurfaced in Paris in 1978, practising law as though nothing had happened. Bouhired had no idea of his whereabouts. French intelligence experts I spoke to had different theories, but none claimed to know for certain where he had been. Many believe he was in Syria, working for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Others suggest the Congo. It has been alleged that he was in Cambodia with Pol Pot, a notion he likes to encourage but which the journalist John Pilger told me is "highly improbable".
"My obituaries were touching," says Verges. "Such promise snuffed out so young - that kind of thing."
To vanish for almost a decade, then return with your secret intact, sounds a more challenging task than Lord Lucan's one-way ticket to oblivion.
"Very challenging," he replies. "Unless you are discreet by nature."
"If you won't say where, say why."
"To say why," says Verges, with a mischievous smile, "is to say where."
Divorced by Bouhired during his absence, Verges has not remarried since his return. He lives alone, above his chambers. He had an affair with a junior colleague, Isabelle Coutant-Peyre; she later took up with Carlos the Jackal, explaining that the Venezuelan is "completely different from Verges - straightforward and sincere," and has fewer secrets.
"She said he's more open than me? Why should that surprise you?"
Frankness, I suggest, is not his strong point.
"You call a dog," Verges replies, "it comes. I belong to the cat family."
"You could tell me he spent the 1970s running guns for the Khmer Rouge, feeding orphans in Kenya, or serving at a McDonald's in Le Touquet," one French reporter told me. "No explanation - the best or the worst - would surprise me of Verges."
The lawyer went missing just a few months after the death of Moise Tshombe, leading some to suspect that the disappearance of Verges and the Congolese assassin's vast fortune had been simultaneous.
Verges denies the accusation. The amount of cash he had when he resurfaced has been exaggerated, he says. What money he had was from a publisher.
All of which makes it curious that one of his then friends, a lawyer called Jean-Claude Cain, claimed, in a 1987 interview with the newspaper Liberation, that he had occasionally hidden Verges in Paris during his exile.
"Jacques would ring up and say: Don't ask where I have been,' he said. I have no money.' Cain, who is no longer willing to speak publicly on the subject, added that, when his friend returned for good, he had debts and "a suitcase full of banknotes. He told me: "Pay them with that". I said "Where did you get it?" He said "From Tshombe".
Utterly untrue, insists Verges.
So why did Cain say it?
"It sounds to me as if he was hallucinating."
As he says this, the lawyer scratches his left earlobe - the kind of abrupt, nervous movement that police interviewers are supposed to interpret as an indication of a lie, though with Verges such a gesture might equally be a mischievous double bluff.
For all his discretion, the lawyer enjoys recounting one anecdote relating to his lost years, from which he returned, to use his own phrase, "battle- hardened."
"When I came back to Paris," he says, "I was in hiding for a while. One day I went to the grocer's to buy bread and cheese. Behind me, in the queue, I saw the widow of a former colleague. I could see her staring at me in amazement, getting ready to tell everybody she'd seen Verges. So I turned to her and shouted the lawyer assumes a coarse voice , "Hey fat girl - what's happening?" She recoiled as though I'd undone my flies. I knew that if she told anyone, nobody would believe her."
If the current state of preparations for Saddam Hussein's trial can be likened to the chaos that sometimes takes hold at the starting line just before a National Hunt race, there is one thoroughbred in its stall and pawing the ground. For Verges, the trial of the Iraqi must represent the next best thing to defending Adolf Hitler at Nuremberg: another brief, I suggest, that he wouldn't have had the slightest hesitation in accepting.
By way of reply, Verges reaches behind him and picks up a slim volume: The Portage to San Cristobal of AH by the writer and academic George Steiner.
"In this novella," Verges says, "Steiner supposes that Hitler didn't die in his bunker but survived among the Amazonian Indians. Mossad kidnap him, and put him on trial in the jungle. As the Israelis are good democrats," he adds, his expression unaltered by the sarcasm of this remark, "they allow Hitler the last word. Which goes as follows."
" I learnt everything from you. Everything. To set a race apart. To keep it from defilement. To scour the land of its inhabitants. Woe unto the Amorities, the Jebusites and the Kenites, the half-men outside God's pact. My racism was a parody of yours, a hungry imitation. What is a 1,000-year Reich compared to the eternity of Zion?'"
Verges glances further down the page.
"You have made of me some kind of mad devil, the quintessence of evil, hell embodied. When I was, in truth, only a man of my time. Average, if you will. Had it been otherwise, how then could millions of ordinary men and women have found in me the mirror of their needs and appetites? It was, and I will allow you that, an ugly time. But I did not create its ugliness, and I was not the worst. Far from it. How many wretched little men of the forest did your Belgian friends murder or leave to starvation when they raped the Congo? Some 20 million. What were Rotterdam or Coventry compared to Dresden or Hiroshima? Did I invent the camps? Ask the Boers... Gentlemen of the tribunal: I took my doctrines from you."
He closes the book.
"Professor Steiner wrote that," he says. "He is an Austrian Jew. A man who feels profoundly Jewish, though he is not a Zionist."
The relish with which he recites this passage - a classic variation on his strategy of rupture - gives you some idea of the kind of dark rhetoric Verges will seek to employ, should he be permitted to cross-examine Saddam Hussein in open court.
"Of course, there is one crucial difference between the cases of Hitler and Saddam Hussein," says Verges. "Had the Fuhrer been put on trial, the allies could not be said to have collaborated in the crimes they were judging. The Americans believe they can control this trial," he goes on. "They are wrong. It will be impossible to control. A trial is never a binary operation that can be programmed, like a computer. What you might call Frankenstein Syndrome is ever-present in international affairs. The Americans helped al-Qa'ida at the beginning. Al-Qa'ida got out of control. They supported Saddam Hussein; he got out of control. This trial will be no different."
Is there no criminal, past or present, whose crimes are so grotesque that he wouldn't represent them?
Verges draws on his cigar.
"Do you know something?" he says. "I believe I am even capable of defending George W Bush."
He tilts his head slightly in the direction of the tulips.
"Even Bush," he repeats. "So long as he promises to plead guilty."
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