Defending the Indefensible
August 30, 2009 8:57 PM   Subscribe

Jacques Vergès has defended Milosevic, Carlos The Jackal, Saddam Hussein and nazi Klaus Barbie (you know, with with the one with the museum) in court. What kind person does it take to do that, and why?

To hear from the prosecution, read what Geoffrey Robertson has to say about these trials, and their justice.*

*warning both of these are long. But very readable and worthwhile, and you don't have to be a lawyer.
posted by smoke (29 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
What brings together all of Vergès’ cases, the notorious and the anonymous, is a unified theory of law that is at once political, prudential, moral, and aesthetic.

Namely, waiting for the check to clear.

To be fair to the kind person, though, everyone he defended were only following their own orders.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:04 PM on August 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

The very first link (to YouTube) gives a big "This is a private video. If you have been sent this video, please make sure you accept the sender's friend request" rather than an actual video...
posted by Dysk at 9:07 PM on August 30, 2009

Thanks Brother, I'll email a mod.
posted by smoke at 9:09 PM on August 30, 2009

Terror's Advocate
posted by PostIronyIsNotaMyth at 9:33 PM on August 30, 2009

posted by PostIronyIsNotaMyth at 9:33 PM on August 30, 2009

What kind person does it take to do that, and why?

Someone who believes in the concepts any civilized justice system is founded upon.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 9:42 PM on August 30, 2009 [22 favorites]

I watched Terror's Advocate. Pretty much a promotional piece for Jacques. AFAIK, he has yet to come clean about his whereabouts during his disappearance. If it has anything to do with the Khmer Rouge, I doubt he will.

Bruce Cutler has nothing on this guy.
posted by jsavimbi at 9:48 PM on August 30, 2009

That "one with the museum" link goes to "Violin Virtuoso Bach Chaconne Geiger Tymur Melnyk".
Did you mean the museum visited here?
posted by dunkadunc at 10:07 PM on August 30, 2009

I'm generally in favour of lawyers who defend unpopular people and causes. I generally agree with Solon and Thanks's comment.

That said, this is a despicable human. He seems to unerringly and enthusiastically defend the most evil men of our times and hugely profit by it. He's willing to lie in a courtroom to defend mass murderers.

The world would be better off without him.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:23 PM on August 30, 2009

Everyone deserves counsel. Everyone is entitled to their choice of counsel. The counsel can charge whatever the market will bear. Sometimes you want someone who is a fairly vicious and effective litigator, especially if you need a high risk strategy effectively executed. That litigator will often go close to the ethical boundary in defending their clients, but should have enough skill never to cross it. It should be recalled that extreme suspicion that a client is lying is not knowledge, and indeed this is why defence counsel often ask their clients not to say more in interview even to them. It is fine and arguably desirable to advance every argument, and so unless the 'He's willing to lie in a courtroom' has a cite with a specific lie I don't think that's a fair statement at all.

Purely my opinion: However, given his overall performance in the past Jacques Vergès is not actually a good choice if you wish to have something approaching a good legal defence. It's like employing a Roman orator and rather than a litigator. Nelson Mandela and Adolf Hitler have both memorably employed the dock as pulpit though, so Vergès' clients view on the value of actually winning may be secondary to the public justifiation of their actions.
posted by jaduncan at 10:46 PM on August 30, 2009 [3 favorites]

Blazecock Pileon -- are you making a Hannah Arendt joke? I hope so.
posted by nímwunnan at 10:48 PM on August 30, 2009

I'm inclined to agree jaduncan, however I would say that Vergès' has chosen to champion very selective aspects of the legal system. He is strongly against the concept of international criminal courts, and war crimes as we know them.

Ironically, the man gained both his fame and fortune from working in a system he professes to despise. My own question, though, is has he helped or hindered his cause in doing so?
posted by smoke at 11:06 PM on August 30, 2009

That said, this is a despicable human. He seems to unerringly and enthusiastically defend the most evil men of our times and hugely profit by it. He's willing to lie in a courtroom to defend mass murderers.

But he should enthusiastically defend them, it's his job to do so. And his job is important, literally as well as symbolically. One could be disgusted that he appears to have no personal qualms over doing so, but that's a separate issue. If he drags his feet in defending them he is not taking his job seriously. I'd rather there be a man who feels no regret over defending them who does his job fairly than one who feels regret and doesn't uphold our system.

Also, is lying really his tactic? I don't know enough about him. I suppose you could say he must use it, but in the 2nd link his main tactics seems to be philosophical, aggressive - obviously flawed - but legitimate.

Essentially, the thing that bothers me the most about this is the need to justify why any of these dictators deserve a fair and enthusiastic defense. Everyone does, and there can't be any "Yes, but"s added to that statement, especially not "Yes, but his defender should feel bad about doing it."

Clearly he has some questionable - illicit? - personal problems, but wholeheartedly defending his clients in court (no matter how horrific the crime) is not one of them.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 11:22 PM on August 30, 2009 [8 favorites]

Smoke: I think he's wrong about the fundamental validity of internationals law, though I think the critisism that it can be hegemonic justice is fair. Where we part company is in thinking that deploring the lack of ethics of the prosecuting state constitutes a legal defence for the crimes committed by the defendant. They are both separate alleged crimes. However he's only a lawyer with apparently unconventional views based on his public statements that were themselves made whilst in the service of clients who would benefit from those views being adopted by the court or public. That's what we can say.

I might even personally think that he's a bad person (though the article seemed suspiciously keen to play this up). However as someone who is comfortable with a range of views at the bar his primary failing for me is that he's just not a very good lawyer.
posted by jaduncan at 11:47 PM on August 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

That should be 'international law', obviously. I need to sleep.
posted by jaduncan at 11:47 PM on August 30, 2009

tl;dr: 'Ya boo, well so did you' is not actually a legal defence.
posted by jaduncan at 11:49 PM on August 30, 2009

link: What kind person does it take to do that, and why?

Solon and Thanks: Someone who believes in the concepts any civilized justice system is founded upon.

Well, then, for god's sake find us that person and let us get rid of this awful monster Vergès.
posted by koeselitz at 11:51 PM on August 30, 2009

Solon and Thanks: I don't know enough about him.

I hate to pull this bit out, but Jacques Vergès is a dead end for the argument you're trying to make around him. I know lawyers who pride themselves on giving everyone a chance because everyone deserves an advocate, and I agree with the principle that for the maintenance of a free society we must always have people willing to defend anyone and everyone, even the indefensible.

Unfortunately, Jacques Vergès, far from being the advocate for the defenseless, is actually just an opportunist with an eye for good opportunities for publicity. He's never really defended anybody, he's never gotten a better verdict than anybody expected, and he invariably turns every trial into a public debate about the legacy of colonialism. That's not offering a public defense for the defenseless; that's opportunism. And his greatest trick is picking defendants who are clearly hopeless cases, so that he never gets any complaints about the fact that he's only using whatever chance he can to look pretty for the cameras.
posted by koeselitz at 12:01 AM on August 31, 2009

Well, yes, I have no illusions of him being a good person, let alone Atticus Finch. I'm just disputing the lurking idea that one of his flaws is defending (insert whomever.) Responding specifically to the idea that it takes a "kind of person" (which reads as a negative connotation to me, but YMMV) to defend Hussein.

The way he defends them can be criticized, (I agree it seems like it's all more about circus than anything else) but the fact that he does shouldn't be is all I'm saying.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 12:10 AM on August 31, 2009

Agreed completely.
posted by koeselitz at 2:22 AM on August 31, 2009

It wasn't intended negatively (though, like you and Koeselitz I have a low opinion of his lawyering) - merely, that it's not something every person would do, let alone so many times.
posted by smoke at 4:37 AM on August 31, 2009

nim, I think he's making a Nuremberg joke.
posted by kldickson at 4:58 AM on August 31, 2009

Everyone's innocent, if you ignore enough. Vergès revels in his ignorance, which makes defending his clients a simple matter. That is, when he bothers to even make a legal argument instead of relying on emotional appeals in the court of public opinion.
posted by tommasz at 8:41 AM on August 31, 2009

Jesus, guys. Even the devil needs an advocate.
posted by dunkadunc at 9:13 AM on August 31, 2009

Why should even ask this kind of question?
posted by zouhair at 2:18 PM on August 31, 2009

“I'd rather there be a man who feels no regret over defending them who does his job fairly than one who feels regret and doesn't uphold our system.”
Just ask Max Cady.

Is there anyone who would defend people like this who some folks here might speak well of?
Either we agree the job has to exist or it doesn’t. If it does – do we run through each lawyer and specifically indict each of them for being sub-human? Guy who defended Bormann argued that the Brown Eminence (stain) couldn’t be convicted because he was dead. He failed, but it was a good shot.

Richard Speck had a public defender (Gerald Getty) who did a decent enough job. Gacy’s lawyers used the defense that it was erotic asphyxiation – all 33 bodies. Repugnant, but what exactly else were they do to?

Jacques Vergès’ circus antics aside – would it be worse if he were successful?
Indeed, is it possible for anyone who defends someone like this to be successful?

Isn’t a head of state more or less convicted once put to trial? Otherwise – why try them? I mean, it wouldn’t be politically possible to try them if the political force to bring them to trial didn’t exist. And once that force exists, is it at all possible to stop it?
Look at Bush as an example. I sincerely believe the man should be tried for war crimes concerning torture (among other things).

And yet - even bringing him to trial – even beginning - would require tremendous political change, which would change the power environment of U.S. and in some ways the world.
Once that force begins, and once those changes are made – I don’t think it would be possible to stop them even if some case for innocence or clemency could be made. I can’t think of any instance under which a sentence wouldn’t ultimately be executed.

Nuremberg was a special case – most of the powers were fairly balanced and the nations were all interested in a post-war resolution. Matters of jurisdiction were not matters of realpolitik. In the case of Bush – let’s say Germany or France indicts him. What then? The U.S. says “up yours”? In many ways it becomes a national matter of prestige and who determines justice rather than anything to do with the matter at all.

So in the case of Hussein – that was a foregone conclusion. I don’t personally believe in the death penalty, but if I ever had him in my sights I would have killed him if only to spare future conflict. But war is more simple and direct in that manner. (and of course, Robertson was off base about Hussein becoming a martyr after execution precisely because of the shift in power that made his trial possible)
This is not to say a civilized justice system is impossible, or even to say there is a hypocrisy to it. Because it’s not necessary that there need be. Indeed, it’s abundantly clear Milosevic (whom I also regret not having in my sights) and others here are guilty. And there is a wealth of evidence, etc.

But rather that power, politics, public opinion, etc. – are necessarily part of the process. I don’t know that Vergès has to play to that the way he does. But I do think any defense counsel would, as Bormann’s lawyer did, have to respect the information from the outside world and build a case on that, since in many ways the crimes in question are indefensible.
And as we retreat further and further from the “divine right of kings” to sovereign immunity to heads of state being culpable for criminal acts even if they are public affairs, any defense is going to have to plumb that region of where human rights and responsibilities lay in foreign affairs and who has jurisdiction over them.

Because currently – the inverse is true. We have the rule, but no power at all to enforce it. As with Bush. He can’t be brought to trial – and currently one would have to question that if he could, would it be fair given the measures that would have to be taken to get him there if they were quickened – because of the position the United States enjoys, currently, as a world leader.
Were he president of, say, Togo, I think he might have a rougher time with the world community.

The problem is still – who bells the cat? Deposing a tyrant is itself punishment. But who then sets themselves up to do that? One can hardly argue for an objective system of justice if you have a nation that can knock over almost any other and bring their leaders to trial. Even in a fair trial – even with an innocent verdict – you’ve still changed the power structure such that the former tyrant (if he is in fact one, which I’m not at all arguing wasn’t the case in the specifics here) will be an enemy of his own state. By necessity.

Much like the old maxim – treason doth never prosper because if it does, none dare call it treason. In this case – a tyrant will always be found guilty, because if he isn’t, was he then a tyrant, and what does that then say about your efforts to bring him to trial?
Hussein was a dictator. He did deserve to be tried. And there was ample evidence to convict him of a number of war crimes and indeed, genocide.

But - were we justified in attacking Iraq to depose him?
It’s not a simple question. Obviously – who watches the watchman. But too – who determines the nature of rule and what if that entity profits thereby? And in bringing Hussein to trial, for killing thousands, many more thousands, perhaps millions were killed and/or displaced.
Maybe it was necessary. Maybe not. Plenty to be said on it (and how and why, etc) but the question at hand - is that then justice?

But you can’t ask that question to power. So then, who you put on trial becomes a matter of who you *can * put on trial.
And I’d have to question if justice is possible under those terms.
…this is not to say Milosevic or Hussein aren’t guys who shouldn’t have been put away or Illich Ramirez Sanchez isn’t someone I wouldn’t have stomped on sight.
But the difference in the pursuit of those kinds of men is vast.

One would have to ask whether an indictment of the conditions that gives rise to the former isn’t more appropriate than bringing to bear the kind of force necessary to capture them and bring them to trial.
Ethnic strife is something that is often exploited, allowed, profited by, and even encouraged by some nations, multinational corporations and religions.
General Electric, Kodak, DuPont, Shell Oil, Ford (especially), General Motors, Siemens – made vital components for the Nazi war effort (Hugo Boss, less vital) f’rinstnce.

Those kinds of crimes seem to go unpunished, even as it has more respectable defenders everywhere.
I find it too easy to castigate schlubs like Vergès or his clients (in part because alone, they're pretty easy to just kill), I'm more curious about the environments that breed such animals. You need more than overt force or moral outrage to dismantle such apparatus.

Mistake this for the simple will and action of one man, however odious that man may be, and you'll find they grow and crop up again in quick succession. If not here, then there. Or somewhere else.
...and hell, isn't that what we've been finding?
posted by Smedleyman at 4:59 PM on August 31, 2009

Smedleyman: Jacques Vergès’ circus antics aside – would it be worse if he were successful? Indeed, is it possible for anyone who defends someone like this to be successful?

'Success' doesn't enter into it. He would be better if he defended his clients. He does not, nor has he ever done so. In every one of his cases, he attempts to argue that it doesn't matter what they did because the government is guilty of worse, and then he attempts to build a media frenzy until the trial is disrupted. This is not what I assume is his goal; he has stated that it is his goal; he's written books about the strategy: deflect the issue of guilt, move past the question of personal crimes and create as many avenues to admit evidence against the state as possible, constantly conduct interviews with the press, publish essays and editorials and publicize the case as much as possible until the public outcry is such that the trial grinds to a halt.

You describe several attorneys who are notable for taking a difficult situation and making the very most of it. This is something Jacques Vergès has never done; and he can't stand those noble cases for which most lawyers yearn, the cases where they're defending the innocent. That's because Jacques Vergès believes that no one is innocent and he is intent on bringing down the judicial system in order to prove it. To Jacques Vergès, 'upholding the system' makes one as guilty as the worst mass murderers.

I agree that it's a hard call, and I see that democracy requires all kinds and most of all requires people willing to advocate for and defend all kinds—but where do we draw the line? Do those 'all kinds' include people who really and truly wish to see the destruction of the system? I think so, but I have a hard time deciding if we should allow people to advocate for them who themselves believe that the system should be destroyed.
posted by koeselitz at 9:16 AM on September 1, 2009

"Do those 'all kinds' include people who really and truly wish to see the destruction of the system?"

That's more what I was addressing. In part - is it possible to do other than what Verges does. Obviously you think it is and I have to agree. And indeed, I agree with you ( on the specifics - that aside, taking Verges' position in the abstract - why is it he does what he does?
We can argue character flaws, nihilism, all that - but again - the man himself aside, let's take a rational actor and insert it in Verges' place and assume it acts somewhat similarly.
The question then is - why is it intent on bringing down the system?

So I have to then ask - in my above comment, in the case of the Iraq war, is there some other more rational line of argument?
I mean, you could argue the specifics of the case. But it's pretty clear Hussein is guilty and killed thousands of Kurds with gas.
Ok. It's an open and shut case really.
But is it off base to ask where he got the gas? Is it destructive to question - and again, I'm taking Verges out of this and posing the question as a matter of the legitimacy of prosecuting justice in the manner in which it has been done rather than the specific manner Verges pursues - so is it destructive to question the manner of Hussein's apprehension as respect to doing justice?
I mean we're not really talking 'democracy' here.
I'll grant we are talking right and wrong and these defendants clearly are wrong.
But I think the line is far more obscure than we're positing it is in matters of international justice.
From that position - how wrong is it to believe that the system should be destroyed?
I mean, how many people have been killed by the Iraq wars, not to mention the sanctions, all the other matters of international policy - we can put on top of that the fact that the Bush administration lied us into the war... legitimacy cannot be defined by the object of prosecution.
One is not right merely because one's opponent is wrong. Hussein was a tyrant, yes. Evil, even. And yet, we did do business with him for a long time.
And it was under our auspices that he was prosecuted - it was our use of force that made that possible.

I suppose I'm divorcing the fruit of the poisoned tree argument from Verges hackneyed measures and placing it in the abstract in relation to a given national actors use of force.

That aside - Verges' argument(s) can't possibly succeed without force to back them up. He can argue that the system should be destroyed all he wants, it's a completely moot point without the juice to do it.
But that is, in a sense, the door I'm opening.
In the case of straight criminal law, you have the police, the suspect, the judge, the defense, the prosecution. The judge is impartial and a separate entity from the system of law enforcement.
Here, in the case of Hussein,, they are, while not identical, at the very least incestuous when it comes to power, and perhaps policy to a lesser degree.
So how impartial is the judge if he's the one who went out and grabbed the bad guy?
If he renders a judgement counter - that calls into question the legitimacy of his powers of execution, no?
So if I argue - hey, this system is wrong, the judge can't be impartial because he's the one enforcing the law, I'm arguing for the destruction of the system, in a sense.
(Again, taking Verges daffy antics out of the equation)

So too - in the case of J.P. Zenger - you had a guy who was insulting public officials. At the time they were held synonymous with the system. The man and the office were considered one and the same more or less, so an attack on the man, his character, were considered an attack on the system. But his assertions were true.
And indeed, that was the first trial (in U.S. history) where an attorney challenged the laws rather than challenging the fact of his client's guilt.
Ultimately it was ruled that it was healthy for a democracy to subject public officials (and by extension the workings of the government) to criticism.
On essentially the same principle I'm defending here, really - (For let the laws be never so much overborne by some one individual's power, let the spirit of freedom be never so intimidated, still sooner or later they assert themselves) albeit not applied to the press, but to the method of execution.
And that would only apply to matters of war really, you can bring in Carlos the Jackal without rolling the tanks so the point there is moot.

...although people do argue that terrorism is often a matter of a response to oppressive policy.
I see no circumstances under which deliberately targeting innocents is ever defensible. I'm just saying it's there.
And of course, the bombing of Dresden in WWII would fit pretty well into that niche.
So the power to redress an atrocity is a facet of the system itself - so one can well ask how legitimate is it for a given power that has committed atrocities to prosecute another power, or a specific head of state, for theirs?
I wouldn't, of course, make the argument that this is justification for turning bastards like Milosevic or Hussein loose of course.
Just that there are some grounds there to call that into question.
And really that would speak to a more independent system of international justice. One that wouldn't have to sit still for a superpower (like the U.S.) telling it to go to hell or arguing it's agents are immune or whatnot.
Which is really only a matter of realpolitik - I mean, if you're Barney Fife, you're not bringing in Adnan Khashoggi. Hell, he's under indictment by the U.S. government (ostensibly), guy's got so much money and power we're not bringing him in any time soon.
posted by Smedleyman at 12:11 PM on September 1, 2009

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