The Lawyer Who Defended Terrorists
‘Terror’s Advocate’ documents the incredible life of Jacques Vergès
The gray-haired man puffs on a cigar.
He seems small and unassuming in his vast study. He squints his eyes behind tiny, circular wire-frame glasses. The middle button of his powder blue shirt is undone, as if he dressed in a rush.
He leans back, his face serious.
“Some say the genocide was wholly intentional,” he begins. “I say it wasn’t.”
He’s referring to the Cambodian genocide—a pogrom of death enacted by the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s.
The regime targeted ethnic minorities and anyone suspected of being an intellectual. Exact numbers are hard to know, but estimates put the deaths at around 500,000. Roughly 25 percent of the country’s population.
“There were deaths and famine,” the man continues. “But it was unintentional. There was reprehensible repression and torture. But not on millions of people.”
International efforts have uncovered nearly 20,000 mass graves in Cambodia. People call them the killing fields. “About the number of deaths,” he adds. “The mass graves found don’t tally with the number of alleged victims.”
He then goes on to assert that international observers have inflated the number of deaths. He adds that the people doing the math lumped Cambodians who died as a result of U.S. bombardments, blockades and embargoes in with the genocide.
The film is Terror’s Advocate—a 2007 documentary by French director Barbet Schroeder. The man is Jacques Vergès—defense attorney to some of of the 20th century’s most notorious killers and criminals.
Vergès has defended Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie, international terrorist Carlos the Jackal, tourist serial killer Charles Sobhraj, Saddam lackey Tarik Aziz and German radical Magdalena Kopp.
He offered to defend Slobodan Miloševi?, but the Serbian dictator declined legal council.
People often ask him if he would defend Hitler. “Of course,” he says, grinning. “I’d even defend Bush. But only if he pled guilty.”
Vergès was born in 1925 to a Vietnamese mother in Thailand. His father was a French diplomat. He and his twin brother, Paul, went to live with their father after their mother’s death. His father lived on the French colonial island Réunion—in the Indian Ocean east of Madagascar.
This front row seat to colonialism deeply affected Vergès. He would fight against it and the West for the rest of his life.
In 1945, Vergès and his brother joined De Gaulle’s army in Liverpool. He helped liberate France from the Nazis. Vergès then went to college and became a lawyer. After a few years as a public defender, he settled in Algiers and involved himself in its resistance movement.
In the 1950s, Algeria was still very much under French control. The local population and the French authorities clashed violently. Algerian insurgents placed suitcase bombs in French cafes.
Djamila Bouhired placed one such bomb. It killed 11 people. French authorities arrested her in 1957. They tortured her for 11 days then rushed her to trial. Vergès took up the case. It was the court battle that would define him.
At trial, Vergès deployed what he called the “rupture defense.” Rather than defend his client, he aggressively attacked the court system. He put on a show. He acknowledged the crimes of his client, but did not allow them to show contrition.
Vergès demands a reckoning from the courts and the jury. During the Djamila trial, he refused to call her a terrorist.
To him, she was a freedom fighter. He refused to allow her to show remorse for the crime. He portrayed the bombing as an act of war against a colonial oppressor.
The jury convicted Djamila and sentenced her to death, but Vergès had helped make her into a symbol. He played up her torture at the hands of the French, and moved his public relations fight outside the country.
Soon, Djamila’s face adorned posters. She was the subject of plays and films. She was everything Algeria wanted from its daughters—strong, brave and willing to kill the hated French.
Bowing to world pressure, France stopped Djamila’s march to the guillotine. When the war between Algeria and France ended and the country gained independence, she left prison and returned home.
Vergès’ bizarre and combative strategy worked.
This one story is a tiny part of this long and sprawling documentary.
Director Barbet Schroeder had incredible access to killers, freedom fighters, criminals and terrorists. Vergès is the planet around which these strange and elusive historical figures orbit, but he is far from the star of the show.
It’s his clients and their stories that fascinate and repulse in Terror’s Advocate.
“I cried after the bomb blast at La Corniche, because I’d sworn to stop planting bombs,” one Algerian resistance fighters bemoans. “They mutilate people,” he says, sawing at his arms to demonstrate.
“The deaths I didn’t mind. We all have to die. But people losing their arms and legs, that made me sick.”
“So many bombs were exploding,” says Magdalena Kopp. She talks about the spate of retaliatory bombings and murders her husband—the criminal Carlos the Jackal—enacted after her capture and trial. “So many people died. I was the reason.”
Just as many of the radicals are not contrite. Jackal associate H.J. Klein recalls murders and explosions with the matter-of-fact mood of a middle-aged man recalling a particularly exciting fishing trip.
In 1980, Anis Naccache attempted to assassinate a former minister to the Shah of Iran. He failed. Vergès defended him in court. In Terror’s Advocate, Naccache is unrepentant. More than that, he’s proud. He’s a freedom fighter. A warrior for Islam.
Vergès and his story is the hook that draws the audience into the world of Terror’s Advocate, but it’s these interviews with this older generation of terrorists that serves as the film’s main feature.
The director does not confront them. He allows them to talk, to tell their own stories in their own words.
Vergès is an old man in the documentary. He slumps in his chair, always a wry grin on his face. A grin that says its owner knows things we’ll never know.
Early in the film, one of his friends explains that Vergès should have been a freedom fighter, like those he defends in court. But he enjoys the finer things in life too much.
Vergès found a way to live the good life, to enjoy fine wine, excellent food and good books yet still fight against the colonialism he viewed as destroying the world.
He also gamed two worlds—two separate systems.
He gamed the Western world in which he practiced law and defended terrorists, as well as the radical world where he supported terrorists yet never picked up a weapon.
His weapon was the courtroom drama. He held up the monsters of the Western world, and attacked society for allowing those monsters to exist.
Vergès had it both ways. No wonder he titled his autobiography The Brilliant Bastard.