Justice, evil and art—an interview with the most extraordinary lawyer of our time, Jacques Vergèsby M G Zimeta / August 29, 2013 / Leave a comment
Jacques Vergès, who died in Paris on 16th August, may have been the most extraordinary lawyer of our time. He was candid about his “passionate interest in evil” and forged a career representing some of the most high-profile criminals of the past 50 years: Carlos The Jackal, Magdalena Kopp of the German Baader-Meinhof gang, and the Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan, to name only three. Vergès also sought to represent Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic.
“The interesting thing about my clients is discovering what brings them to do these horrific things,” he told Der Spiegel in 2008. “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.”
When Osama bin Laden was killed by US Navy Seals in Pakistan in May 2011, I thought of Vergès. Sure enough, he had offered to represent bin Laden too; but he had also offered to defend George W Bush, should the need arise. In the 1960s, Vergès had been the first lawyer to represent the Palestinian fedayeens; then, in the 1990s, he told the LA Times that he would like to be counsel to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. As a young man, Vergès had participated in riotous demonstrations following the assassination of Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba; as a lawyer, he took on as a client Lumumba’s alleged assassin, the Congolese politician Moise Tschombé. None of it made any sense to me, so, a few months after Bin Laden’s death, I travelled to Paris to talk to Vergès about justice and evil.
“For me, the subject of a lawsuit is the same thing as the subject of a novel or a tragedy,” Vergès explained. “These interest us because the hero challenges the world order of things. A lawsuit has the same content as a novel or a tragedy—the only difference is that a lawsuit changes with a real situation.
As a lawyer, when a person comes to you, they are in a crisis. The judge and the jury don’t know the person accused—and can’t get to know him either. The way that the questioning proceeds in a trial, the client can only answer ‘Yes’ or ‘No’—‘Did you know that you were overdrawn at the bank?’; and so on.” Vergès shook his head impatiently and drew deeply on his cigar. “But a lawyer can speak on behalf of the client in his crisis. And so the lawsuit can give birth to a character, like a novel or a tragedy.”