PARIS (AP) — Jacques Verges, the flamboyant lawyer who earned the nickname the “Devil’s advocate” for his defense of former Nazis, terrorist bombers and notorious dictators and their aides, has died. He was 88.
Verges died of cardiac arrest on Thursday in the Paris bedroom of Voltaire, the Enlightenment philosopher famed for his attacks on the establishment, according to Pierre-Guillaume de Roux, the editor of Verges’ memoir “My Confessions.” He had been invited to the apartment for dinner by a friend who is the current owner, de Roux said.
“He died in the very room where Voltaire took his last breath,” said de Roux. “It was an ideal place for the final act of this born performer.”
Celebrated and excoriated, Verges already had a reputation as an acerbic attorney ready for the lost cause when he stepped up to defend Klaus Barbie, the former Gestapo captain who directed a campaign of torture and death in the south of France and was ultimately convicted of crimes against humanity in 1987 in Lyon, France. He was later a lawyer for Paul Touvier, a Frenchman who was Barbie’s aide in execution and was also convicted of crimes against humanity.
“I would have defended Hitler,” Verges once said. “Defending doesn’t mean excusing. A lawyer doesn’t judge, doesn’t condemn, doesn’t acquit. He tries to understand.”
Verges likewise lost the case against Carlos the Jackal, the Venezuelan terrorist who kidnapped 11 OPEC oil ministers in 1975 and led a series of bombings and shootings in the 1970s and 1980s.
During 1994 court hearings for Carlos, Verges found himself in the headlines, accused of being a spy and Carlos’ comrade-in-arms. He was never charged and appeared unperturbed at the allegations. Carlos himself was convicted in 1997 — after Verges had left the case — and sentenced to life in prison.
“I’ll let you in on a little secret. The assassination of King Alexander of Yugoslavia, that was me. … The Great Train Robbery, that was me, too,” he said at the time, keeping a straight face as he spoke to French television.
But Verges never denied — and indeed reveled in — the mystery that outlived him.
Born in 1925 in Thailand, Verges’ mother was Vietnamese and his father was a Frenchman from the overseas island Reunion. He grew up on Reunion and took up the anti-colonialist cause as a young man.
The attorney married one of his first clients, Djamila Bouhired, a young Algerian nationalist who went on trial in 1957, accused of planting bombs in public places. She was sentenced to death but ultimately pardoned in 1958 after he raised repeated questions about the court’s legitimacy and her guilt — the first time he employed the strategy of legal “disruption” that would become his trademark. He took on Algerian citizenship, converted to Islam and rose to prominence in the foreign affairs ministry. Then, in 1970, he disappeared.
For more than eight years, there was no trace of him. His wife and friends appealed for anyone who had seen him to come forward. Then in 1979, Verges reappeared in Paris. He never offered an explanation, seemingly delighting in confounding people.
In a 2005 interview, he would say only that he had been “very much to the east of France.”
Others he helped defend included Slobodan Milosevic, the former Serbian leader who ultimately turned down his offer and acted as his own lawyer. Milosevic died before the end of his trial. And Verges claimed to be on the defense team for Saddam Hussein and one of his closest aides, Tariq Aziz.
In a 2011 trial of former Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Samphan, Verges compared descriptions of atrocities to something out of an Alexandre Dumas novel.
“He was one of two or three extraordinary lawyers of my generation,” George Kiejman, a French attorney who frequently ran up against him in court, told French media. “I gave him all my respect, all the while knowing that we would agree on absolutely nothing.”
Verges is survived by two sons and a daughter, de Roux said. His marriage to Bouhired, their mother, failed soon after he reappeared without explanation.
Follow Lori Hinnant at https://twitter.com/lhinnant