Interview with Notorious Lawyer Jacques Vergès 'There Is No Such Thing as Absolute Evil'

He has met Mao Zedong, Pol Pot and Che Guevara. He defended 'Carlos the Jackal' and Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie. Jacques Vergès, 83, is probably the world's most notorious attorney. His latest client is Khieu Samphan, the former head of state of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, who is on trial for war crimes.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Vergès, are you attracted to evil?

Jacques Vergès: Nature is wild, unpredictable and senselessly gruesome. What distinguishes human beings from animals is the ability to speak on behalf of evil. Crime is a symbol of our freedom.

SPIEGEL: That's a cynical worldview.

Vergès: A realistic one.

SPIEGEL: You have defended some of the worst mass murderers in recent history, and you have been called the "devil's advocate." Why do you feel so drawn to clients like Carlos and Klaus Barbie?

Vergès: I believe that everyone, no matter what he may have done, has the right to a fair trial. The public is always quick to assign the label of "monster." But monsters do not exist, just as there is no such thing as absolute evil. My clients are human beings, people with two eyes, two hands, a gender and emotions. That's what makes them so sinister.

SPIEGEL: What do you mean?

Vergès: What was so shocking about Hitler the "monster" was that he loved his dog so much and kissed the hands of his secretaries -- as we know from the literature of the Third Reich and the film "Der Untergang" ("Downfall"). The interesting thing about my clients is discovering what brings them to do these horrific things. My ambition is to illuminate the path that led them to commit these acts. A good trial is like a Shakespeare play, a work of art.

SPIEGEL: You are currently on stage at the Madeleine Theater in Paris, as the main character in a one-person play you wrote.

Vergès: It's about me, of course, about the lawyer's profession and the nature of trials. In every trial, a drama unfolds in front of the public, a duel between the defense and the prosecution. Both tell stories that are not necessarily true, but possible. One is declared the victor in the end, but this doesn't necessarily have anything to do with justice.

SPIEGEL: Are there any people whose defense you would not take on out of principle?

Vergès: One of my principles is to have no principles. That's why I would not turn down anyone.

SPIEGEL: Let's say, Adolf Hitler…

Vergès: I would have defended Hitler. I would also accept Osama bin Laden as a client, even (US President) George W. Bush -- as long as he pleads guilty.

SPIEGEL: You can't seriously be mentioning Hitler, Bin Laden and Bush, and their failings, in the same breath.

Vergès: Every crime is unique, and so is every criminal. That alone makes such comparisons impossible.

SPIEGEL: Your latest client is Khieu Samphan, the former head of state in the infamous realm of the Khmer Rouge, a man to whom you are connected by an astonishing past. You met him in Paris more than 55 years ago, where you both belonged to a communist group. Khieu Samphan is scheduled to go on trial in Phnom Penh soon, where he will face charges of genocide.

Vergès: There was no genocide in Cambodia.

SPIEGEL: Really? About 1.7 million people died in less than four years as a result of the Khmer Rouge reign of terror.

Vergès: These numbers are exaggerated. There were many murders, and some of them are unforgivable, which is something my client also says. And there was also torture, which is inexcusable. Nevertheless, it is wrong to define it as deliberate genocide. The majority of people died as a result of starvation and disease.

SPIEGEL: But the regime bore sole responsibility for these hardships.

Vergès: That, precisely, was not the case. It was a consequence of the embargo policy of the United States. The history of Cambodia didn't begin when the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975. There was a bloody prologue to this process: The Americans, under President Richard Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, subjected Cambodia's civilian population to a brutal bombardment in the early 1970s.

SPIEGEL: You could summon Henry Kissinger as a witness in the Khmer Rouge trial.

Vergès: And I reserve the right to do so, but I doubt he would appear. Besides, I'm not even sure that the trial in Phnom Penh will even take place.

SPIEGEL: How can you say that? The United Nations and the Cambodian government have already spent more than $50 million (€39 million) on preparations for the tribunal. The trial of Kang Kek Iew, also known as Comrade Duch, who ran the worst torture prison of the Khmer Rouge, is set to begin soon.

Vergès: It may be that the trial against Duch will begin soon, but not the trials against the other four prisoners: the former Khmer Rouge second-in-command Nuon Chea, the former ministers Ieng Sary and Ieng Thirith, and the former head of state, Khieu Samphan. The case will not even come to trial, because the tribunal in Phnom Penh has already gambled away its credibility and legitimacy.


Vergès: Here are only two examples of the prosecutors' dilettantism: Ieng Sary was already sentenced by a Cambodian court and pardoned by royal decree in 1996. Putting him on trial a second time, for the same crimes, contradicts all legal standards. And my client ought to be released, because the court has ignored elementary rules of defense. Although the tribunal recognizes three court languages as being equivalent, it was not deemed necessary to translate into French more than a fragment of the documents written in Khmer. It is impossible for me to defend my client without knowledge of this evidence…

SPIEGEL: …which you expressed stridently in the Phnom Penh courtroom, before storming out of the hearing and slamming the door behind you.

Vergès: I even had to listen to a judge recommend that my client obtain new legal counsel. An outrage!

SPIEGEL: Are you fundamentally opposed to politicians having to stand trial for mass murder or violating international law?

Vergès: That isn't the main problem. The trial, before the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, of (former Serbian President Slobodan) Milosevic…

SPIEGEL: …the suspected Serbian war criminal, to whom you also provided legal advice…

Vergès: …was a farce. This sort of thing always smells of victor's justice. The same thing applies to the Nuremberg Trials, but at least certain rules were adhered to there. For instance, Hjalmar Schacht, the former economics minister of the German Reich, was acquitted on all charges. My client Khieu Samphan was also responsible for economic affairs, but in comparison with Nuremberg, we find ourselves in a state of total illegality before the court in Phnom Penh. What is happening there borders on lynch mob justice.

SPIEGEL: Could your conspicuously great sympathy for the Khmer Rouge have something to do with your personal history? You first met (Khmer Rouge leader) Pol Pot and Khieu Samphan in Paris, in the 1950s.

Vergès: I was a communist student leader at the time, and I was in contact with many foreign students within the leftist milieu. It is true that I also met with Saloth Sar, who later called himself Pol Pot. He was a young man who loved Rimbaud and was deeply moved by his poems. He was also not without a sense of humor.

SPIEGEL: Humor? He was a mass murderer. Next to Hitler, Mao and Stalin, probably the worst of the last century.

Vergès: One thing is clear, and that is that Khieu Samphan was the most intellectual of the Khmer students studying in Paris on scholarships provided by King Sihanouk. He wrote a clever dissertation on economic development in Cambodia. It is true that I contributed, in a sense, to his politicization. Saloth Sar and Khieu Samphan, like others, were searching for role models to conduct the anti-colonial struggle in their native country. Khieu Samphan became a Marxist.

SPIEGEL: When did you see him again?

Vergès: Not until 2004. He told me, at that time, that he expected to face charges. So I went to Cambodia, and we sat together for four days in his house near the Thai border to jointly come up with a defense strategy.

SPIEGEL: And what does it look like?

Vergès: Quite simply, my client never held a position of authority in the country's police or security forces. His role was merely technical. As head of state, he represented the country, but he was not responsible for the repression. He is a gentle person. He is innocent.

SPIEGEL: Do you actually believe that?

Vergès: Yes, of course. All he wanted to do was abolish a political caste, not the citizens that were part of it. He was an idealist who pursued revolutionary ideas. You know, the West is constantly trying to take everyone to task, but should it really be doing so, especially when, as in the case of the United States, it has killed thousands of civilians in wars with the supposed goal of spreading democracy, and when it is responsible for Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib? Or when a country like France was involved in such dirty business as in Algeria?

SPIEGEL: In 1957, you defended many members of the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN), making a name for yourself as an attorney. Your clients used the methods of terror to revolt against their French colonial masters. You declared your solidarity with them, to a great extent.

Vergès: Yes, I told them at the time: I understand your rage, I understand your struggle, and I support what you are doing. I also endorsed the violence that they employed. I saw the FLN as an agent of resistance.

SPIEGEL: Have you suffered so much in your own life that you can show so much understanding for acts of violence?

Vergès: You know, it seems to be in fashion, using one's own victimhood as justification for one's actions. I abhor that! It is true that my father had to resign his position as consul in colonial Indochina because he married a Vietnamese woman. He then took us to Réunion, the French overseas region off the African coast, where he worked as a doctor. I am a creature of dual origins, but mine was no tortured existence. I was not born with anger in my belly. I just acquired that anger myself.

SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, sheltered sons of Paris families will likely have had different experiences.

Vergès: Of course. I have known discrimination since my childhood. Once, in Madagascar, I saw an incredibly fat European couple being pulled around in a rickshaw by an emaciated local man. When they wanted to stop, they simple kicked the man. They wouldn't have treated a donkey that way. I have experienced the meaning of colonialism since childhood. And I despised it at a very early age.

SPIEGEL: You boarded a ship headed for Europe in 1942 and joined the French resistance against the Nazis. Why?

Vergès: As a 17-year-old, in 1942, I fought with Charles de Gaulle's Free French Forces against the Nazi occupation. Because I wanted to defend a France that, aside from the France I despised as a colonial power, I had come to value and cherish: the France of Montaigne, Diderot, Robespierre and the Revolution. And I very much liked the idea of serving under de Gaulle, under someone who had been sentenced to death by the French government. We were trained in England and Algeria, and we fought in Italy and France.

SPIEGEL: Wasn't that extremely dangerous?

Vergès: Yes, in principle it was. But I suffered only a single injury during that time, a deep cut in my hand, right here, which happened while I was opening oysters off the Ile d'Oléron.

SPIEGEL: You apparently had a guardian angel.

'I Shift Events to Outside the Courtroom'

Vergès: I'm immune to bullets; let's put it that way.

SPIEGEL: In your first big trial as a young lawyer, you took on a hopeless case in 1957: the defense of the Algerian resistance fighter Djamila Bouhired, who had been charged with committing bombings that also killed civilians.

Vergès: I was completely on her side. She was a patriot. She was brutally tortured in prison.

SPIEGEL: In the trial, you introduced, for the first time, your now-famous rupture strategy, or "defense de rupture," the principle of launching a defense with a political counter-attack. Why?

Vergès: The other French attorneys who had taken over the defense in Algiers tried to begin a dialogue with the military judges there. The judges saw the FLN as a criminal group. But the Algerian defendants saw their attacks as a necessary act of resistance. In other words, there was no consensus over the principles that were to be applied in reaching a verdict. For me, it meant that I had to shift the events to outside the courtroom and win over public opinion for the defendants.

SPIEGEL: It worked. After an international campaign that you helped organize, Bouhired, who had been sentenced to death, was released, and she eventually became your wife. In March 1963, you went to China with her to drink tea with Mao Zedong. How did you manage to get an audience with the Great Chairman?

Vergès: I managed a newspaper in Algeria at the time, Révolution Africaine, which was supported by the FLN. The Chinese had invited members of the editorial staff to Beijing. We had many very serious political discussions. But Mao's human side surprised me. There was something touching about him. He asked me, in all seriousness, whether I intended to marry Djamila. I said that I did, and he replied: "Do it. It will certainly be a difficult relationship, but love is a subversive force."

SPIEGEL: Would you still feel so positively about Mao, given the knowledge we have today, the knowledge of the 30 million starvation deaths for which he was already responsible then, as a result of his "Great Leap Forward?"

Vergès: I believe that everyone has good qualities and weaknesses. I had the great fortune of only getting to know Mao's positive side.

SPIEGEL: You also met Che Guevara.

Vergès: Yes, in Paris. He was just returning from a trip to Switzerland. He first wife was working in our editorial offices. He was impressive, a man with incredible charisma.

SPIEGEL: You were later suspected of having helped terrorists yourself. Was that true? Did you ever think of joining your clients' struggles?

Vergès: I have respect for what many of them did, but I would not do it myself.

SPIEGEL: Respect for terrorists? How can you reconcile that with your conscience, your perception of the law?

Vergès: Magdalena Kopp, for example, Carlos's life partner for many years, was a young German who had studied photography and wanted to become a reporter. Then she left it all behind and went to the Middle East to fight on the side of the oppressed Palestinians. That was an extremely selfless act, for which I can feel nothing by sympathy.

SPIEGEL: But, as a lawyer, aren't you crossing a red line with such sentiments?

Vergès: What exactly does this red line mean? It is my damned obligation, as an attorney, to defend anyone, especially those with the most serious charges against them. Second, I cannot identify with these acts. If my client Klaus Barbie had asked me to argue the superiority of the Aryan race in my summation, I would have said to him: I'm sorry, I can't do that. I am Maître Vergès, an attorney licensed to practice in Paris, not an Obersturmführer.

SPIEGEL: Did you hesitate for long before accepting the defense of Klaus Barbie, the former head of the Gestapo, the "Butcher of Lyon?"

Vergès: Not a second. At Barbie's 1987 trial in Lyon, I faced the 39 lawyers on the opposing side and the judge. That alone was reason enough to assume Barbie's defense.

SPIEGEL: You needed police protection after you held up a mirror to France in the courtroom and accused many Frenchmen of collaborating with the Nazis.

Vergès: The beauty of a trial can be measured by the trail it leaves behind, long after the sentence has been pronounced.

SPIEGEL: What was your impression of Barbie?

Vergès: He was a surprisingly ordinary man, no outstanding personality. But, of course, one should not forget that more than 40 years had passed between the crimes he committed and the trial. He was no longer the same man.

SPIEGEL: You should know. You too disappeared without a trace in the 1970s. Without even notifying your family, you were gone for eight years. To this day, no one knows where you were at that time.

Vergès: André Malraux once said that the truth about a man lies mainly in what he does not say…

SPIEGEL: …in other words, you have no intention of ever clearing up this mystery?

Vergès: Why should I? It's highly amusing that no one, in our modern police state, can figure out where I was for almost 10 years. It has been conjectured that I spent the time with the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, in Palestine, in China and in France. I enjoyed reading my obituaries. They were about a highly gifted young man who had left this world.

SPIEGEL: You take on many of your cases without payment. You have defended prostitutes and poor children. How do you fund your law firm?

Vergès: Don't worry. There are also industrial companies that I represent, and they pay me very well, so there is certainly some money left over.

SPIEGEL: There have also been rumors of your being on the payroll of and an advisor to African potentates. The Congolese politician Moise Tshombé, who was involved in the murder of (former Congolese Prime Minister Patrice) Lumumba, was one of them, and you even sued Amnesty International on behalf of the violent former president of Togo, Gnassingbé Eyadéma…

Vergès: …because it had claimed things that were untrue. Even good organizations must respect certain limits.

SPIEGEL: Eyadéma, Tschombé and their ilk -- aren't these people of whom you could say: I don't want to have anything to do with them?

Vergès: Yes, I could do that, but it would be about the same thing as a doctor saying to his patient: "You know, you have AIDS, but I don't like black people. I think they are criminal and it disgusts me, so I will not treat you."

SPIEGEL: A doctor must provide help, but as an attorney, you are not obligated to accept every client.

Vergès: If you meet a doctor who cannot look at blood, pus or open wounds, he is in the wrong profession. If you meet a lawyer who doesn't like criminals or dictators, it's the same thing.

SPIEGEL: "My moral is to be against every moral, because it seeks to lash down life," you once wrote.

Vergès: Yes, in an autobiographical book that I named after something a journalist had once called me: "Le Salaud lumineux," or "The Brilliant Bastard."

SPIEGEL: Could it be that you use your profession mainly for permanent intellectual provocation?

Vergès: I use it mainly for permanent intellectual enrichment. Our view of the world changes with time, because we see it from different perspectives. Thanks to my profession, I am now familiar with the view of the world from the perspective of the terrorist and the policeman, the criminal and the idiot, the virgin and the nymphomaniac. And I can tell you that this improves one's own vision.

SPIEGEL: Maître Vergès, thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Brita Sandberg and Eric Follath

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