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.

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


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