Saddam Circus Is Coming to Town: the Strange Story of Jacques Verges

by Michael Radu

April 14, 2004

Michael Radu, Ph.D., is co-chairman of FPRI’s Center on Terrorism, Counter-Terrorism, and Homeland Security. This essay is adapted from a version that originally appeared on frontpagemagazine.com.

French celebrity lawyer Jacques Verges has announced that “at the request of the family” he has agreed to serve as defense counsel for Saddam Hussein at his upcoming trial for genocide and similar charges. The trial, which is to begin sometime this year, has been greatly anticipated ever since Saddam was captured in December, and now Verges’ involvement ensures that it has all the potential of becoming an international ideological and political three-ring circus. Issues such as officials’ personal responsibility for their government’s acts, genocide, terrorism, and the right to a fair trial will all come under scrutiny, as seen from Verges’ trademark Stalinist “anti-imperialism” viewpoint.

For those who believe that communism, and even more so Stalinism, are long dead, Verges is a living fossil, his ideology a Jurassic Park of twentieth-century criminal thought. Verges’ life is as fascinating in its contradictions as it is revealing of a trend in the European— especially French— intellectual environment, whereby “justice” becomes a matter of ideology, fashion, and politics rather than of morality and law. It is only in such an environment that a lawyer who lost most of his cases (before France abolished capital punishment in 1981, Verges was nicknamed “Monsieur guillotine,” given the fate of many of his clients) became famous. His books, such as On Judicial Strategy (1981), The Beauty of Crime (1988), I Defend Barbie (1988) and I Have More Memories than If I Were One Thousand Years Old (1999), have been published by the most prestigious editors, and he has been taken seriously in his relentless assaults against the concepts of law, justice, and Western democracy.

Jacques Verges and his twin brother, Paul, were born in 1925 in Thailand, where their father, Raymond, was serving as a French diplomat. Raymond was a native of the French island department of La Reunion in the Indian Ocean, whose inhabitants are mostly of mixed race (Asian, European, African); Jacques’ mother was Vietnamese. Based on his lineage, Jacques has perennially claimed to be a victim of racism, notwithstanding that the careers of his father and brother contradict that claim. In 1937, Raymond Verges founded the Reunion Communist Party (PCR), the local branch of the metropolitan organization. Paul, jailed as a young man for the murder of one of his father’s political opponents, became a deputy and, in 1996, senator in the French parliament, to which he was reelected in 2001. He remains president of the Regional Council of Reunion and head of the PCR, the island’s second largest party.

Jacques himself joined the Communist Party as a teenager, supported Charles de Gaulle during World War II (but only once Stalin had entered the war), and afterwards studied law at the Sorbonne. By 1949 he was president of the AEC (Association of Colonial Students), a communist front. There he met a fellow colonial student from then French Indochina, Saloth Sar, who became a friend for life. Saloth Sar went on to become better known as Pol Pot. Verges’ connection with the Khmer Rouge continued: his disappearance from the public eye between 1970 and 1978 has been attributed by some to his joining the Khmer Rouge, and in February 2004 Verges offered to defend Pol Pot’s associate and Sorbonne classmate Khieu Samphan in his upcoming trial for genocide before a UN-aided tribunal in Cambodia.

Between 1950 and 1954 Verges was in Prague, then the center of Soviet global propaganda and ideological training, as leader of one of Moscow’s youth front organizations. During that period he had the privilege of meeting Joseph Stalin himself.

Upon return to France, radicalized by the Algerian war, Verges left the Communist Party and began his road to fame as a defense lawyer for Algerian terrorists. The most famous of those, and the case that won him plaudits from cultural icons of the Left such as Jean-Paul Sartre, was that of Djamila Bouhired, implicated in an Algiers cafe bombing that resulted in numerous fatalities. Ms. Bouhired was sentenced to death, but the combination of a leftist media campaign and a weak socialist government led to her release. She subsequently married Verges.

At a time when France was at war, Verges openly supported and defended terrorists and their French accomplices— that is, traitors. He was jailed for this for two months in 1960 and temporarily disbarred.

Verges effortlessly shifted his loyalty from to Stalin to political evil in general— he once admitted a “passionate interest in evil.” Commingled in his brilliant mind were the worst of Nazism, Stalinist communism and, lately, Muslim totalitarianism. One of his French critics theorizes that his mixed-race background led to an extreme need for recognition, megalomania, and personal adventure, so that “behind an image of international lawyer of the first rank is hidden a mercenary of law” (Bernard Violet, Le Parisien, Mar. 27, 2004).

That, and an obsessive hatred for Israel, best explain his personal and professional associations and his choice of clients. The latter have included Nazi criminal Klaus Barbie, who was sentenced to life in prison in 1987; Marxist turned Islamist terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez a.k.a. Carlos the Jackal, who was sentenced to life in prison in 1994; Algerian terrorists linked to petty thief and Islamist terrorist Khaled Kelkal, who was killed by the police in 1995; former Marxist philosopher (and another convert to Islam) Roger Garaudy, who was convicted of Holocaust denial and fined in 1996; Slobodan Milosevic, in 2002; and now, logically enough, Saddam.

What do these clients have in common, both among themselves and with their lawyer? The same characteristics as former Nazi and now Islamist sympathizer Francois Genoud, another Verges associate. As owner of the Arab Commercial Bank in Switzerland, Genoud was the apparent financier of the Barbie case, as well as some of Genoud’s Palestinian terrorism cases. These men are the ideologues and defenders, practitioners, or would-be practitioners of mass murder or genocide. Their ideology is totalitarian at its core, thus explaining the effortless movement from Marxism or Nazism to Islamism or support for it. They also share a common trait of twentieth-century European totalitarianists and present- day Islamists: hatred of Jews and Israel.

It is this background that gives away Verges’ likely tactics at Saddam’s trial and explain his taking up the case. This is no humanitarian response to a desperate “family request”— indeed, Verges had volunteered to represent Saddam within days of Saddam’s capture. The celebrated lawyer is on a lifelong campaign against Western values and freedoms, and the fate of his clients is not a major concern to him. They are merely cannon-fodder for him to use toward his greater goal.

As a defender of Palestinian terrorist hijackers of El Al planes in 1969, Verges claimed that the terrorists’ acts were political, not criminal, and the fault of Israeli aggression. Representing Milosevic, Verges claimed that the International Court trying the Serb leader was inherently illegitimate and biased because it received outside donations from individuals such as George Soros (whom he called “not exactly a Mother Theresa”) and nations such as the United States and Saudi Arabia. He threatened to call for testimony from Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Gerhard Schroeder, and Jacques Chirac, “because in Dayton they recognized Mr. Milosevic as a respectable and valid interlocutor.” Expect the same in a Baghdad court—after all, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld did talk to Saddam in the 1980s, and the West helped him against Iran at the time.

Verges’ personal and views of the justice system in general and of morality are similarly peculiar. Thus, in The Beauty of Crime he writes: “The judges are like chefs— they do not like to be observed when they cook,” and “The world of justice is a closed, cruel world…. Its doors are quilted to stifle the cries, its cathedral windows to block the view” “between the dogs [prosecution] and the wolf [defendants] I’ll always be on the side of the wolf— especially when it is wounded.” More relevant, and revealing, accusations in the name of society are uses of the banality of the time, while the defense must escape “the trapped terrain of consensus” to set itself “beyond good and evil, to give crime a new sense and the criminal a face. What sets them apart is the beauty.” (See Denis Touret, “Un mercenaire du droit, Me Verges defend Saddam Hussein,” March 2004).

In Legal Apartheid, Verges writes that the old notions of honor demonstrated at Thermopylae, Waterloo, and Stalingrad, were ended with Hitler, whose adversaries could only be subhuman. Referring to Kosovo, he says that NATO follows on Hitler’s steps in its contempt, charged with fear and hatred, for those [i.e. Milosevic’s Serbs] who would contest its hegemony. More radical still, for Verges “racism is simply replaced by the ideology of human rights in the exclusive version of Gens. Powell and Clark, butchers of the peoples of Vietnam, Iraq, and Serbia… . ’Human rights’ is the pretext for the murder of civilians in the Balkans, the starving of Iraqi children, and poppy cultivation in Afghanistan.” (Touret, “Un Mercenaire du droit”)

In many ways Verges has been a path breaker for radical lawyers everywhere. His approach to the defense of terrorists has been followed by lawyers in the United States and Germany, especially. He blurred the lines between defense, representation, and ideological comradeship with the accused, and sought to transform legal cases against individuals into global tribunals against “the system”—to put the court, the judges, and democracy on the stand. He has already made clear that he will try to bring world leaders to testify in Baghdad and found enablers in the media speculating that such tactics “could be a huge embarrassment for the United States, France, and other countries.” (“World leaders should take stand in Saddam trial: lawyer,” AFP, Dec. 20, 2003)

That would, of course, depend on the Iraqi judges and the rules to be decided in Baghdad. If Western human rights groups and defense lawyers succeed in making the Saddam trial an international affair, they will offer Verges another platform for his anti-Western psychopathic obsessions and Saddam the opportunity for revenge against Washington and London and, perhaps, a chance to save his skin. If, however, common sense and morality set the rules, Verges will not only lose the case—that is to be expected— but, given his age, also lose his last chance to promote the counter-values of totalitarianism of which he is the premier living representative.

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