'Devil's advocate' lawyer Jacques Verges dies aged 88

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 August, 2013, 4:04am


Jacques Verges, the provocative French lawyer who earned the nickname "devil's advocate" by defending a series of high-profile criminals from Klaus Barbie to Carlos the Jackal, has died in Paris. He was 88.

Verges died of a heart attack in the house where 18th century enlightenment philosopher Voltaire once lived - an appropriate setting for an iconoclast who devoted his life to defending unpopular causes, according to his publishing house Pierre-Guillaume de Roux, which called it "the ideal place for the last theatrical act that was the death of this born actor who, like Voltaire, cultivated the art of permanent revolt and volte-face".

Christian Charriere-Bournazel, the head of France's main bar association, said that Verges had lost a lot of weight and mobility since a fall. "We knew the end was near but we didn't know it would come so soon," he said.

Born in Thailand in 1925 to a father from Reunion island and a Vietnamese mother, Verges was a communist as a student and later supported the Algerian National Liberation Front in its fight for independence from France.

After securing the release of Algerian anti-colonialist Djamila Bouhired, he married her.

Verges went on to become a high-flying lawyer, making headlines around the world thanks to a client list that includes some of the most infamous names of modern times: Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie, Venezuelan revolutionary Carlos the Jackal, former Iraqi deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz and ex-Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic.

One of his last high-profile cases was the defence in 2011 of his long-time friend, Cambodia's former communist head of state Khieu Samphan, on charges of crimes against humanity over the 1975-1979 Khmer Rouge rule.

Then aged 86, the short, bespectacled Verges delivered a pithy riposte to prosecutors who had spent two days detailing the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime.

The prosecution's version of events "sounded like a novel written by Alexandre Dumas about what happened in Cambodia", said Verges in a 10-minute speech, laced with irony and an occasional suppressed smirk.

Verges' life story reads like a novel, but there is one chapter that he prefers to leave unopened: from 1970 until 1978, when he left his wife and children and disappeared. He referred to this period as "the dark side" of his life.

Among the more persistent theories are suggestions that he fostered ties with Palestinian militants, that he passed through Congo - or that he lived in Khmer Rouge Cambodia.

Agence France-Presse