With the guillotine looming before them half a century ago, the terrorists seeking an end to French colonial rule in Algeria could not speak the same language as a court seeking to preserve it.
“No dialogue was possible,” Jacques Verges, currently defending his old friend Khieu Samphan at the Khmer Rouge tribunal, said in an interview last week.
“The judge said, ‘you are French.’ The accused said, ‘I’m Algerian.’ The judge told him, ‘you are a member of a criminal organization.’ He answered, ‘I am a member of a resistance organization.’ The judge said, ‘you have committed a murder.’ He answered, ‘I executed a traitor as ordered.’”
As death sentences appeared inevitable, Verges took to insulting the judge, to brandishing the Algerian flag in court and singing the rebel anthem. An international campaign of public protest involving activists and socialist leaders called for the condemned to be spared.
With the trials of dozens of terrorists so noisily derailed, including that of Verges’ future wife, Djamila Bouhired, who planted the bomb in the September 1956 Milk Bar attack in Algiers, leaving 11 dead and five wounded, authorities found it difficult to impose sentence. All were spared decapitation.
“Executing the condemned would have revived the whole scandal of the trial. Had a doctor really committed torture on a hospital bed? Had the police commissioner really made a forgery?” Verges asked. “Had we argued softly, they could have cut the guy’s head off. It would have had no consequences,” he said.
Verges declined to say what strategy he would employ in defending 76-year-old Khieu Samphan, whom he is representing with Cambodian attorney Say Bory, or whether Khmer Rouge veterans, many of whom see themselves as patriots, could prove as incompatible with the justice system as the Algerians did.
However, he said the “trial by defiance” tactic, as he described it, is only for use in exceptional cases, such as when the court cannot meaningfully interact with the accused.
But by Thursday last week Verges had nevertheless called off any and all future cooperation with the Khmer Rouge tribunal’s Office of the Co-Investigating Judges, declining to allow Khieu Samphan to be interrogated until the mountain of evidence to be used against him has been translated from English to French.
“It’s true that a trial never unfolds the way the organizers have planned it. The organizers of the trials ought to think about that,” Verges said.
“Trials do not obey the laws of mechanics. In a trial there is a human being and this human being is fighting. So what determines a trial is the balance of arms.”
Now at the height of his notoriety following the acclaimed 2007 Barbet Schroeder documentary about his life, “Terror’s Advocate,” Verges has, perhaps more than any other living attorney, attracted both curiosity and revulsion over his 52-year career.
The press, accustomed to printing his name followed by a string of his clients, a list of the 20th Century’s most notorious, have never been able to resist a fascination with Verges.
Though rarely interested in contemporary Cambodia, the French news media followed Verges here last week. For the French television crew waiting at the Khmer Rouge tribunal Thursday, even his last footsteps to the airport were worth filming. By Friday, “a source close to Khieu Samphan” had told the conservative Paris broadsheet Le Figaro of Verges’ latest legal maneuvers.
Verges was born in Thailand to a Vietnamese mother and a father from the French island of La Reunion, either on March 5, 1925, or April 20, 1924. He was an active opponent of colonialism as a student in Paris in the 1950s, when he first met several of the people now behind bars at the Khmer Rouge tribunal.
Tep Khunnal, governor of Banteay Meanchey province’s Malai district, said Tuesday that Pol Pot had once recalled Verges upon reading the attorney’s 1997 book “Le Salaud lumineux” (“The Shining Bastard”).
“He only said that he knew Mr Verges when he was in France and that he was a good person. That is all,” said Tep Khunnal, a former Khmer Rouge diplomat who lived with Pol Pot from 1993 until his death in 1998.
Verges maintains that if there is any interest in his encounters with the future leaders of the Khmer Rouge, it arises only in hindsight.
“It was at the time of action against the Indochina War that I met Moroccan, Algerian, Khmer, Vietnamese, Malagasy students, etc,” he said. “I ran a student hostel and we held little parties in the hostel. It was nothing remarkable.”
However, historian Philip Short, author of the book “Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare,” said Verges’ relations with the Cambodians were a little deeper than this.
As a member of the International Students Union, a front organization for Soviet-bloc countries based in Prague, Verges introduced future Khmer Rouge Foreign Minister Ieng Sary and Thiounn Mumm, one of the founders of the Cercle Marxiste, a secret student group of Khmer communists in France, to the French Communist Party, according to Short.
For the future leaders of Democratic Kampuchea, the Paris days were a time of ferment, bringing them to the forefront of the anti-colonialist scene, exposing them to Stalinism and causing them to reflect on the methods of the French revolution, Short said.
“In fact, [Verges] was not close to them. But he did know them. He knew best Ieng Sary, Thiounn Mumm and later Khieu Samphan,” Short wrote in an e-mail.
However, Verges said Thursday that he never formed much of a bond with the Cambodians in Paris, who he said were “interchangeable” to him.
Verges also made an umpteenth refusal to say where he was between 1970 and 1978, years during which he appears to have vanished.
“There you’ll get no answer,” he said.
The long-held theory-once favored by Verges himself, according to Short, that he was here in Cambodia with the Khmer Rouge at the time, has long since been discredited.
Indeed, the evidence points away from Cambodia entirely.
The Lebanese politician Karim Pakradoni told the makers of “Terror’s Advocate” that he recalled hearing a 1973 discussion about Verges between Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat and Abu Hassan Salameh, mastermind of the 1972 massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic Games.
Verges says he first set foot in Cambodia twelve years ago, as word began to arise that the government might seek to try the Khmer Rouge.
He describes the deaths attributed to the Khmer Rouge as an historical amalgam, made up less of policies of human destruction than of famine and US bombing.
“Look, it wasn’t in their interest to diminish their population,” Verges said when asked about the killing fields. Senior leaders in the French Revolution were also unaware of atrocities carried out in remote parts of France, he added.
The tribunal’s co-investigating judges have charged Khieu Samphan not as an orchestrator of the regime’s atrocities but as an ideologue, whose public statements and political thought lent legitimacy to the regime. The late attorney Brian Tittemore wrote in 2001 with historian Stephen Heder, currently an investigator at the tribunal, that evidence uncovered to implicate Khieu Samphan was “not as extensive” as for other senior regime leaders but nevertheless implicates him in supporting the regime’s policies.
Khieu Samphan has claimed he had no real authority under Democratic Kampuchea.
Verges said that Khieu Samphan had sought to defend Cambodia from foreign aggression but that this did not make him responsible for what happened within the country.
“Defending the territorial integrity of a country isn’t necessarily being an accomplice of the leaders in their domestic policy,” Verges said.
On the heels of his successes in Algeria, Verges went on to defend members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the East German Rote Armee Fraktion, terrorist Illich Ramirez Sanchez, aka Carlos the Jackal, and Nazi Gestapo officer Klaus Barbie, known as the Butcher of Lyon.
At Barbie’s trial, Verges argued that his client’s actions in Lyon were no worse than those of some French army personnel in Algeria. Barbie was sentenced to life in prison in 1987 and died four years later.
Unlike a doctor, a lawyer may refuse to defend a client, said Verges, but contact with such people is necessary to the defender’s work, which is itself necessary to democracy.
“I think I am a normal lawyer. That is to say I defend every case,” he said.
“One has the right not to defend if one has an uneasy heart. I think a young woman may hesitate to defend a rape. But this is not a moral attitude. It is an emotional incapacity.”