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French ‘Devil’s advocate’ Jacques Vergès dies

AFP

The controversial French lawyer Jacques Vergès, nicknamed the ‘Devil’s advocate’ for defending a series of high-profile clients with blood on their hands, died in Paris late Thursday aged 88.

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Provocative French Barrister Jacques Vergès, nicknamed the “Devil’s Advocate” for defending some of the 20th century’s most notorious monsters, died Thursday in Paris aged 88.

Vergès made a name for himself by taking on clients such as Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie, Venezuelan revolutionary Carlos the Jackal, former Iraqi deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz and ex-Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic.

He caused a storm when he told German newspaper Der Spiegel in 2008 that he would have defended Hitler.

Vergès died of a heart attack around 8:00pm Paris time in the house where 18th century enlightenment philosopher Voltaire once lived

"It was the ideal place for the last theatrical act that was the death of this born actor who, like Voltaire, cultivated the art of permanent revolt and volte-face," his publisher said in a statement.

Algerian independence, Cambodian war crimes

Born in Thailand in 1925 to a father from French territory Reunion and a Vietnamese mother, Vergès was a communist as a student and later supported the Algerian National Liberation Front in its fight for independence from France.

After securing the release of Algerian anti-colonialist militant Djamila Bouhired, he married her.

One of his last high-profile cases was the 2011 defence of his long-time friend, Cambodia's former communist head of state Khieu Samphan, who faced charges of crimes against humanity for his role in the 1975-1979 Khmer Rouge regime.

Then aged 86, the short, bespectacled Vergès delivered a pithy riposte to prosecutors who had spent two days detailing the horror the country suffered under the Khmer Rouge, during which up to two million people died through starvation, torture and execution.

The ‘dark side’

Vergès's life story reads like a novel, but there is one chapter that he preferred to leave unopened: from 1970 until 1978, when he left his wife and children and disappeared.

He has referred to this period as "the dark side" of his life, leading to much speculation about these missing years.

Among the more persistent theories are suggestions that he fostered ties with Palestinian militants, that he passed through Congo – or that he lived in Khmer Rouge Cambodia.

Vergès himself said he "passed through to the other side of the mirror."

"It's highly amusing that no one, in our modern police state, can figure out where I was for almost 10 years," he told German newsweekly Spiegel in a 2008 interview.

FRANCE 24’s Bangkok correspondent Cyril Payen, who met Vergès on a number of occasions, said the lawyer was “a very complex person”.

“There is a wide gulf between the public man, the provocative and often aggressive barrister, and the private man, who was actually quite humble,” Payen said.

Maximum publicity

On his return to his legal activities, Vergès became the champion of extremists from both left and right.

He was an advocate of Palestinian violence against the "imperialism" of Israel but he also defended neo-Nazi bombers and leapt at the chance to expose what he saw as establishment hypocrisy in the Barbie trial.

Most of his clients lost their cases but Vergès' flair was in courtroom provocation, attacking the prosecution and maximising the publicity of his defendants' cause.

Once asked by France Soir in 2004 how he could defend Saddam Hussein, after he said he was prepared to represent the Iraqi dictator, Vergès replied: "Defending Saddam is not a lost cause. It's defending (then US president George W.) Bush that is the lost cause."

Vergès, a lover of thick Robusto cigars and author of some 20 books, had his colourful life portrayed in the 2007 Cannes Film Festival documentary "Terror's Advocate" and starred in his own play in France, called "Serial Defender."

(FRANCE 24 with wires)

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