I was watching the early evening news, and there was an interview with and report about the man who is about to provide the legal defence for Saddam Hussein, a person called Jacques Vergès. It so happened that, by pure coincidence, I had been reading about this man earlier today. He makes an appearance in this book about the remarkable life of the remarkable language teacher Michel Thomas, Thomas having been involved as a prosecution witness in the trial of Klaus Barbie, whom Vergès (characteristically) also defended.
It was already clear from the news report this evening that Vergès will be using the same tactics, namely using the trial of his supposed client as a platform to launch attacks against everyone else, in a way that won’t help his client but which will further his own political agenda.
Here is how that Vergès got signed up to defend Barbie, and here is what sort of man Vergès is.
A wealthy Swiss banker, Francois Genoud, who was a declared Nazi both during and after the Second World War, had stepped forward to bankroll Barbie’s defence. Genoud had appealed to the extreme-left lawyer Jacques Vergès for help, and the attorney flew to Geneva to confer with the Nazi paymaster. This unlikely couple had more in common than at first appeared in that they shared a deep and fundamental antipathy towards Israel. Genoud funded Arab liberation movements of the extreme left, while Vergès had defended Arab terrorism. The lawyer had flown to Lyon to meet his new Nazi client and was appointed as the mastermind for the defence. From now on Barbie would merely be a pawn in an elaborate political agenda. On the surface, Jacques Vergès appeared quintessentially, almost affectedly, like a member of the French establishment. He dressed in the immaculate, formal style of a lawyer, worked at a Louis XV desk in his office, and boasted old Flemish tapestries on the wall. But his entire life and political philosophy had been shaped by the conviction that the culture in which he was immersed secretly dismissed him as a colonial half-caste. Vergès was half Vietnamese, and therein lay the root of his intellectual and political rage against France. He was born a twin in Thailand in 1925 ï¿½ then known as the Kingdom of Siam – where his father, a doctor and diplomat, had married a Vietnamese woman. She died when the twins were only three years old. The children seem to, have been brought up by their father in a poisonous atmosphere of resentment and hate. As a young man Vergès saw the world through a distorting prism of racism, while his twin brother received a life sentence when he murdered the man competing with his father for a minor political position.
As a student in Paris, Vergès became a Communist and president of the Association of Colonial Students at the Sorbonne. One of the more active members was the young Cambodian Pol Pot, who became a lifelong friend. (Pol Pot went on to become leader of the Khmer Rouge and the architect of the mass murder of more than a million of his fellow countrymen.) The French Communist Party sent Vergès to Prague for four years in 1950, where he met Josef Stalin. He left the party when it failed to take a radical position against France over Algeria, insisting that French crimes in Algeria were as bad as Nazi crimes in the Second World War. Vergès became well-known for defending Arab terrorists, and his court tactics were so aggressive that he was jailed for two months and temporarily lost his licence to practise law. In 1962 he moved to Algeria, convened to Islam and married an Algerian woman whom he had defended against charges of placing bombs in cafes. (The conversion had a practical side as the lawyer was already married with children in France.) He spent his honeymoon in China, where he met Chairman Mao and became an avid Maoist, and when he returned to Paris he edited the Maoist review Revolution. (It was Verges who sent Regis Debray to Bolivia to hunt for Che Guevara.)
He now adopted a new enemy: Israel. Fundamentally opposed to the existence of the Jewish state, he defended Palestinian terrorists charged with hijacking an El Al plane. He argued that the act was political, not criminal, and that Israel was to blame for the passengers’ deaths. This outrageous claim attracted international notoriety, but did nothing to help his clients, who were found guilty. Most of Vergès’s clients were found guilty, despite all the rhetoric and political posturing. The press began to call him Maitre Guillotine.
In 1970, Verges disappeared. Left-wing conspiracy buffs believed him to have been murdered by Mossad, while his enemies secretly hoped it might be so. He did not reappear until 1978, when rumours from the right suggested he had spent the time with his friend Pol Pot in Cambodia and with Palestinian guerrillas in the Lebanon. ‘I am a discreet man,’ Vergès said when questioned about the eight-year gap in his life. ‘I stepped through the looking-glass where I served an apprenticeship. I have come back battle-hardened ï¿½ note that word, it’s the right one ï¿½ and optimistic.’
Once again he picked up radical cases, defending neo-Nazi bombers and Armenian terrorists, and used the courts as a platform from which to attack his political enemies. He continued to lose many cases, and some clients went to jail for long periods. The high-profile Barbie trial provided a magnificent stage, complete with an international audience, for him to vent his rage both against the French establishment and Israel.
Essentially, Vergès argued that if France could try a man for crimes committed forty years earlier, while operating under orders from a foreign government, then France herself was equally guilty of crimes against humanity in Indochina, Algeria and Africa. The lawyers he assembled for the defence team were all from Third World countries: ‘In this trial made in the name of humanity it is important that the defence is made of the colours of the human rainbow: black, white, brown and yellow.’ There was not an Aryan among them, but the Nazi Barbie raised no objections.
The irony of this fanatical representative of racial purity being thus defended was not allowed to go unremarked. The French-Jewish intellectual Alain Finkielkraut ï¿½ who would later describe Barbie in print as ‘this paltry underling, this monstrous subaltern, this poor man’s Eichmann ï¿½ stood on the steps of the court and declared, ‘We should be indignant over the situation in which a black man, an Arab, a Bolivian and Vergès ï¿½ a man who claims his Asian ancestry ï¿½ rise to the defence of a Nazi, and furthermore defend him in the name of their race, in the name of their non-European identity. Imagine you’re in 1945, at the end of the war, and someone says, “You’ll see, in twenty or thirty years when they accuse and condemn a Nazi torturer, it’ll be the subhumans (that’s what the Nazis called them) who
will defend him.” Everyone would have laughed.’
Vergès continued to argue throughout the trial that Barbie’s crimes were no different to those committed by the French state sitting in judgement, and that the defendant was a small criminal in comparison to French colonialism. The French were no better than the Nazis, and neither were the Jews, as Israel’s actions clearly demonstrated. When Barbie claimed in a brief statement in German that he was only a cog in the machine following orders and should not be punished for doing his job, he was silenced by his lawyer. It was not the defence that Vergès had planned and could only serve to remind jurors exactly what Barbie’s job had been and the monstrous nature of the Nazi machine for which he had worked. And when the defendant declared that he remained an honest Nazi, and had been doing a soldier’s job in time of occupation. Vergès handed him a note. Barbie read it and took the advice to claim the right not to be present at his own trial. Vergès then had the stage to himself.
As the fifty-eight witnesses were interviewed over three weeks – each one numerically representing fifty victims – the intellectual and political arguments faded in the face of grim facts. One woman, who had been thirteen years old when Barbie tortured her, said she had never recovered from the experience. Another, who had been tortured nineteen times, described how her back was torn apart by a spiked ball on a rod, and was unable to say any more: ‘I excuse myself from recalling the rest.’ The evidence against Barbie piled up, the most damning of which was5 proof of his involvement in the murder of the forty-four orphans of Izieu.
Vergès dismissed the order for the deportation of the children presented as evidence by Klarsfeld as part of a Zionist plot to justify Israel’s existence and its oppression of the Palestinians by morally blackmailing the world with the sufferings of the Jewish people during the Holocaust. He described Klarsfeld as a ‘Zionist hitman’ and said the order was a forgery. Experts proved beyond doubt that it was not. Vergès switched arguments. The Nazis were not to blame for the deportation and gassing of the children, but the Jews themselves. He held the UGIF in Lyon responsible for keeping files on the orphans and placing them in an unsafe region, and for collaborating with Vichy and the Nazis.
The plea made on Barbie’s behalf by his Arab lawyer consisted of a long rant against Zionists and Israel for crimes committed against Arabs. He again claimed that Israel was responsible for the deaths of thousands of Palestinian refugees, and that ‘the Israelis were just as guilty as the Nazis’. The attorney did not actually mention Barbie once, merely attacked Israel, until the judge finally silenced him for digression.
After six hours of deliberation the jurors found Klaus Barbie guilty of crimes against humanity. He was sentenced to life imprisonment. Verges predictably proclaimed the trial a farce. Barbie made a final statement, speaking in French for the first time: ‘I did not commit the raid on Izieu. I fought the Resistance and that was the war, and today the war is over. Thank you.’
But perhaps the most eloquent argument against Barbie was made by Sabin Slatin, the woman who had founded the orphanage at Izieu, and the sole surviving adult. ‘Barbie said that he made war on résistants and maquisards, but the forty-four children of Izieu were neither resistants nor maquisards. They were innocents. Neither pardon nor forget.’