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Jacques Vergès, "the Devil's Advocate", 1925-2013
August 17, 2013 8:58 AM   Subscribe

The lawyer who defended Klaus Barbie, Pol Pot, Slobodan Milosevic, among others has died.

Verges was a complex man and an excellent documentary on his life gleams some insight into his personality.
posted by bodywithoutorgans (27 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
Did he ever win a case?
posted by Sys Rq at 9:23 AM on August 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


He claimed that when asked if he would have defended Hitler, he replied, "I'd even defend Bush! But only if he agrees to plead guilty."
posted by absalom at 9:37 AM on August 17, 2013 [14 favorites]


Someone's gotta be there to defend these guys, I suppose. I'm not surprised the person who ends up being this guy.
posted by absalom at 9:38 AM on August 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


I wonder what he did for those ten years in the seventies during which time he just up and vanished.
posted by oceanjesse at 9:42 AM on August 17, 2013


The Wikipedia article says that he didn't actually represent Milosevic. Regardless, he made the choices he made and probably never cared one bit about the internet glib brigade passing judgment.
posted by planetesimal at 9:42 AM on August 17, 2013


I saw him in action once at the Rwandan genocide trials. They had chosen the defense that what happened in Rwanda was a political matter -- a civil war -- and not genocide. Governments have the right to massacre their own people as long as it isn't a racial issue.

The defense didn't work out ultimately, but it was interesting to observe the court and think "That guy there is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. No one doubts that. This entire trial is about his motivation."

Those are the waters Jacques Vergès swam in. I've never quite known whether to respect him for it or not.

In any case a man is dead.

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posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:47 AM on August 17, 2013 [5 favorites]


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posted by flippant at 9:51 AM on August 17, 2013


The legal paradigm in most of the world is an antagonistic one: one party accuses, the other party defends. Unless that basic structure changes, people like Vergès will always be necessary and present.

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posted by clockzero at 9:52 AM on August 17, 2013 [7 favorites]


It's interesting -- my first reaction when I look at his client list is, of course, total repugnance and anger, which leads rather quickly to a kneejerk "well, good riddance" response. And yet, I agree with this statement (from the Guardian article) completely: "When you treat the accused as a monster, you give up trying to understand what happened. And if you don't try to understand what happened, you deprive yourself of any reflection on how to stop that thing happening elsewhere."

But then he goes on to say, "If the Americans had reflected on the moral defeat that torture represented for the French army in Algeria, what has gone on at Abu Ghraib would certainly never have happened." And I would like to believe this is true, and yet I don't think it is. Those who are responsible for Abu Ghraib care nothing for the moral defeat of torture in Algeria (or for the moral defeat of torture anywhere). If there was ever a time that the powers-that-be in the U.S. would have cared about such things -- and I'm not sure that there was -- that time is long gone.
posted by scody at 9:54 AM on August 17, 2013 [8 favorites]


In order to have rule by law, one must have fair trials. In order to have a fair trial, one must have a competent defense. The alternative is quite unpleasant.
posted by Slothrup at 9:58 AM on August 17, 2013 [31 favorites]


But then he goes on to say, "If the Americans had reflected on the moral defeat that torture represented for the French army in Algeria, what has gone on at Abu Ghraib would certainly never have happened." And I would like to believe this is true, and yet I don't think it is. Those who are responsible for Abu Ghraib care nothing for the moral defeat of torture in Algeria (or for the moral defeat of torture anywhere). If there was ever a time that the powers-that-be in the U.S. would have cared about such things -- and I'm not sure that there was -- that time is long gone.

That's a very good point, scody. I read him a little differently, though. I thought he meant that the if American populace at large had a greater moral awareness, by way of (for example) contemplating the moral mistakes of others, we would have held our leaders and representatives to a higher standard. I think in the quoted statement he overestimated the public's susceptibility to moral concerns over those pertaining to security and a need for the feeling of control over threats.
posted by clockzero at 10:03 AM on August 17, 2013 [6 favorites]


I'm glad someone will defend even the most terrible human beings in court. It's not even that we owe THEM a fair trial -- although we do. It's that we owe OURSELVES a fair trial. If the person is truly guilty, then the evidence of their crimes will be presented in a fair and open court. Nobody loses when terrible criminals get a fair trial and a vigorous, zealous defense.
posted by KathrynT at 10:16 AM on August 17, 2013 [23 favorites]


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posted by tychotesla at 10:25 AM on August 17, 2013


It's not even that we owe THEM a fair trial -- although we do. It's that we owe OURSELVES a fair trial.

Absolutely. Destroying monsters by becoming monsters breeds monsters, not peace or justice or anything good. On the other hand, I would not like to look into this man's brain or soul.
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:28 AM on August 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm glad he took it upon himself to defend the people. As others have said, if we deny them a fair trial, then we deny their victims a hearing and skirt close to becoming monsters ourselves. I'm also glad that it's a job I don't have to do.

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posted by arcticseal at 10:46 AM on August 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


> I thought he meant that the if American populace at large had a greater moral awareness, by way of (for example)
> contemplating the moral mistakes of others, we would have held our leaders and representatives to a higher standard.

If that's his actual point then it's optimistic. A Frenchman of exquisite moral awareness, namely Sartre, was able to take moral lessons from the bloody terror perpetrated in Algeria--if the perps were the French army, but not if the perps were the FLN. In the face of that contradiction it's very hard to see moral awareness of the implications of the deeds of others as much more than a chic garment worn over tribalism, which will remain garment or no garment.

(N.b moral awareness concerning your own deeds is different, or so claim I, but the justification for thinking so is long and complicated and could be wrong.)
posted by jfuller at 10:57 AM on August 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


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posted by bbuda at 11:34 AM on August 17, 2013


This entire trial is about his motivation.

Can you say "Hate Crime"?
posted by IndigoJones at 11:37 AM on August 17, 2013


Every single person accused of a crime, no matter how horrible, should have the best defense possible.

Yes, this will mean a few more criminals will go free. But items vastly more innocent people will not be punished.

It's easy to say that these people are guilty. It's harder to prove it. It's even harder when a competent defense attorney is present.

And that is exactly how it should be.
posted by eriko at 12:12 PM on August 17, 2013 [5 favorites]


This entire trial is about his motivation.
Can you say "Hate Crime"?

Ultimately the judges could. Or to be more precise the could say "Hate Speech."

The short time I spent observing that trial fundamentally and permanently altered my view of free speech among other things. The man on trial most likely didn't fire a single shot, nor was he part of any command structure or in fact part of the government at all. He owned a radio station that systematically and continuously exhorted listeners to violence.

I'd always been very iffy on any policy that restricts free speech, but one of the things I noticed at the trial was that Vergès didn't even try that avenue as a defense. And given the consequences in the case I think he was right to skip it -- when 500,000 people are dead saying "I just made suggestions, it's not my fault people carried them out" does ring a little hollow.

But back to the trial, there's a guy with the blood of a half million people on his hands and we're deciding whether he'll be punished based on .... why he did it? WTF, world?

I suppose it's unreasonable to blame Vergès for that state of affairs but he will forever be associated with it in my mind.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 1:42 PM on August 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


This man was willing to take the world's scorn to do what he thought was right.

Whether I could have done it or not, I applaud him.

Rest gentle.
posted by corb at 1:47 PM on August 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


I first heard of this guy in the 80s. I thought (and still think) that he was more than a defense lawyer. IMO he was a fellow traveler. Not sorry to see him go.
posted by CincyBlues at 3:39 PM on August 17, 2013


Wwe have posted about him before a couple of times. Opinion was more split in both of those posts.
posted by smoke at 4:26 PM on August 17, 2013


I am with corb. It would take a man that has an immense respect for and belief in the principles of the law, as well as the ability to hold himself apart from the atrocity of these crimes, to act as defense in these cases. I respect him, yet I don't think I would have wanted to know him.

Parts of his history suggests he could have stood on the side of monsters, and that his personality verged on egomania, yet some of the things he has said are incredibly profound.

Everybody has a right to be defended, and every lawyer has a duty to defend people accused. And my office is to defend him, to discuss the accusation point by point, as I think this is a normal step in a democracy.

I believe that everyone, no matter what he may have done, has the right to a fair trial. The public is always quick to assign the label of "monster." But monsters do not exist, just as there is no such thing as absolute evil. My clients are human beings, people with two eyes, two hands, a gender and emotions. That's what makes them so sinister. ... What was so shocking about Hitler the "monster" was that he loved his dog so much and kissed the hands of his secretaries....

You know, I am against lynching and lynching is a tendency of the people.

The links between the American government and the Iraqi government are so close that you cannot judge one without asking at least the other what he has done by this time.


Another quote to think on:
Nature is wild, unpredictable and senselessly gruesome. What distinguishes human beings from animals is the ability to speak on behalf of evil. Crime is a symbol of our freedom.

The philosophy behind this is incredible. The utter enormity of free will.

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posted by BlueHorse at 7:36 PM on August 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


He didn't always act for the defense: he sued Amnesty International on behalf of the government of Togo, and prosecuted a French author for committing lèse-majesté against some African leaders.

You know, there are definitely lawyers who defend horrible people for altruistic motives; but there are also ones who happen to have lots of contacts among horrible people and find that the job pays well. I don't think that we need to regard someone as a saint just because he does something we would find repulsive; at least, not without finding out whether he found it repulsive too.
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:58 PM on August 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


Every single person accused of a crime, no matter how horrible, should have the best defense possible.

I have a different take. Every time the state accuses a person of a crime, no matter how benign, the state should be forced to PROVE their case against competent defense. Verges didn't "defend" monsters - he made the prosecution (and usually a politically motivated prosecution) do their job of proving the charges with evidence. The world needs more people like this.
posted by three blind mice at 10:59 AM on August 18, 2013


Regardless, he made the choices he made and probably never cared one bit about the internet glib brigade passing judgment.

a model for the world
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 2:00 PM on August 18, 2013


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