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Gbagbo’s French lawyers stir up controversy

Text by Guillaume LOIRET

Latest update : 2011-01-11

The two French lawyers providing legal advice to Ivorian strongman Laurent Gbagbo claim to be battling French neo-colonialism. But Ivory Coast expert Vincent Hugeux argues that their true motivations have more to do with reputation and money.

Two famous French lawyers, one of them best known for defending Nazi Klaus Barbie, are continuing to support Ivory Coast’s embattled incumbent Laurent Gbagbo.

Jacques Vergès: A career defending African strongmen

Congo (1967): Vergès defended the Congolese secessionist Moïse Tshombe accused of involvement in the assassination of independence leader Patrice Lumumba.

Mali: Vergès defended President Moussa Traore who was charged with 'violent crime' (1993) and 'economic crimes' (1999).

Togo (1999): After Amnesty International published a damning human rights report on in the Republic of Togo, President Gnassingbé Eyadéma appointed Vergès to sue the organization.

Ivory Coast (2000): Vergès defended Alassane Ouattara (Gbagbo’s current challenger) when he was disqualified from running for president over questions about his Ivorian nationality. In the same year, Vergès was appointed by coup leader Robert Guei to investigate the alleged embezzlement of funds by Ivorian former President Henri Konan-Bedie. In 2005, Vergès wrote a report for President Laurent Gbagbo on the abuses of rebel forces in the north.

Gabon (2001): President Omar Bongo and two of heads of state (Idriss Deby of Chad and Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Congo) sued François-Xavier Verschave for allegations made in his book Noir Silence. Vergès represented the three men, but lost the case against the author, then the head French anti-corruption NGO, Survie.

Roland Dumas is a former foreign minister who was tried and acquitted in one of France's longest-running political corruption trials. He is joined by Jacques Vergès, notorious for defending Barbie, a Gestapo officer known as the "Butcher of Lyon", and for his association with terror kingpin Carlos the Jackal and Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic.

On January 3, back in France fresh after meeting with Gbagbo in Abijan, Vergès seemed to take pleasure in publically warning the French government to remember the lessons of its troubled colonial past.

"We want to tell the French authorities, remember Vietnam" (France colonised Vietnam until 1945, and Ivory Coast until 1960),” he said. “If you attack the Ivory Coast, as you want to do, it will become your tomb."

While in Adidjan, Vergès argued that Gbagbo had come to symbolise the, "new Africa, one that does not bow its head… and that's what French leaders cannot tolerate".

France currently has 900 troops committed to UN peacekeeping forces in Ivory Coast. President Nicolas Sarkozy on Jan. 4 renounced the possibility that those troops would be used to "interfere in internal affairs."

Gbagbo continues to defend his claim to power, despite the international community recognising his opponent Alassane Ouattara as the winner of the run-off presidential election.

Roland Dumas, the other French lawyer representing Gbagbo, says he plans to publish a report that will discredit Outtara’s claim to power by proving that electoral fraud was committed in the northern half of the country, where his support is strongest. Dumas also called for a vote recount.

This is not the first time that Roland Dumas and Jacques Vergès have advised African leaders and strongmen, and received sizeable fees for doing so. In his book “The White Sorcerers: A Survey of Africa’s False Friends” (Fayard, 2007), journalist and Ivory Coast expert Hugeux Vincent describes the two attorneys as secret advisers who “claim to serve the continent” when their main objective is to “boost their egos, their careers, and their bank accounts.” spoke to Vincent to gain his insight into this latest development:

France 24: Would you say that Dumas and Vergès involvement with Gbagbo is a strange mission for them to undertake?

Vincent Hugeux: Totally. Their mission is both unusual and predictable. Unusual as in that the undertaking itself is pathetic. Roland Dumas and Jacques Vergès are simply basking in the media spotlight. Predictable, because Dumas’ and Vergès support for Laurent Gbagbo goes back a long way.

F24: You say that both men supported Laurent Gbagbo at a critical moment during his first term.

VH: This is not the first time that Laurent Gbagbo has called on Dumas and Vergès for legal council. In November 2004, French soldiers involved in Operation Licorne opened fire on a crowd in Abidjan, killing several Ivorian demonstrators near the Hotel Ivoire. Soon after, Laurent Gbagbo sued the French government and called on Roland Dumas and Jacques Vergès to represent Ivory Coast. He brought Dumas to Abidjan at great expense, claiming he needed 'legal advice.' Did Gbagbo really need a lawyer? No, but Dumas was a symbolic trophy - a former French Foreign Minister (1988-1993) and former President of the Constitutional Council (1995-2000)!

As for Jacques Vergès, in 2005 Laurent Gbagbo asked him to write an investigative report of the massacres perpetrated by rebels in the north of Ivory Coast. An African newspaper reported that he received 140,000 euros for this task.

F24: On FRANCE 24, Jacques Vergès has denounced what he calls French neo-colonial intervention in Ivory Coast. What do you think of this statement?

VH: What matters most to Vergès is being the centre of attention - to be relevant. For him to claim he is anti-colonial is suspect to say the least. After all, he accumulated part of his fortune representing African leaders: President Moussa Traore of Mali, for example, and President Eyadema of Togo.

F24: Are Dumas and Verges Laurent Gbagbo’s lawyers, or are they more than that?

VH: They are much more than lawyers! Legal competence is not of primary importance for Laurent Gbagbo. It is no coincidence that Roland Dumas, former president of the French Constitutional Council has been asked to represent Gbagbo, given that the Ivorian Constitutional Council endorsed his election as president. Given his political calibre in France, his intervention in Ivory Coast is not only damaging but embarrassing. But it is also what makes him valuable to Gbagbo.

F24: You say that all African heads of state have consorted with similar such controversial Western figures (ie, lawyers, PR agents and journalists who meddle in African affairs for personal gain and profit). Has Alassane Ouattara done so as well?

VH: Ouattara is very conscious of maintaining and promoting his image. During his presidential campaign, he hired a French public relations firm known for working with African heads of state [Patricia Balme International Communication]. Finally, remember that Ouattara also hired lawyer Vergès in 1999-2000, when the Gbagbo camp had called into question his Ivorian nationality!

Date created : 2011-01-08


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