Devil's Advocate: the Legacy of Jacques Verges

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: The name Jacques Verges may not register. But how about Klaus Barbie, Slobodan Milosevic, and Carlos the Jackal? Those are just some of the guys that Verges defended as a lawyer, or gave legal advice. Well, Verges died yesterday in Paris at the age of 88. Stephane Durand-Souffland writes for the French newspaper Le Figaro. So Verges apparently once said, Stephane, that he would have defended Hitler if given the opportunity. What kind of guy was he?

Stephane Durand-Souffland: He was a very provocative guy. He was one and only of his kind, you know. He was very, very special. He loved to say things like that, I would have defended Hitler. But Hitler would have to plead guilty. He was brilliant, lot of culture. He was very fond in books, he was a great reader. He loved life, good wines, and cigars.

Werman: So the people that he defended, was he a good lawyer, did he get them acquitted? Or, like Hitler, would they have to plead guilty?

Durand-Souffland: Never. Never acquitted. The purpose of Verges was not to have his clients acquitted. He wanted to make a lot of noise with the trial. And he invented what we call in France "defense de la rupture," what we call the "rupture defense." It means that you transform the trial, you don't make the trial of the client but you make the trial of the court, or of the state. And he did invent this in the early 60s during the war of Algeria. You know, in France it was very, very tough trials and he defended those people who want their country to be free. And then it was with military court, it was very tough, tough trials. So he invented this kind of defense. And he said, who are you to judge me because yourself, you are the author of many crimes in Algeria. It was very brilliant at this time.

Werman: It almost sounds like you're saying that he turned trials from this kind of legal construct into almost a dramatic thing, like the cinema.

Durand-Souffland: Absolutely, dramatic and politic. He was a politician also. He was a warrior. He was a very courageous man.

Werman: Why did he do this, though? I mean, he was known as the Devil's Advocate. What was his fascination for defending war criminals?

Durand-Souffland: His story is very complicated. He was born in 1925 or '24, we don't know exactly. His father was a French, and his mother was born in Thailand. And it was in the French colonies. And he said that he was himself a colonized people and all his life was a struggle against colonialism. He was very happy to be what we call in France a [xx], he was provocative. He wanted to press people against their own contradictions.

Werman: So Jacques Verges did more than just defend these people. He was thought to be a personal friend of Pol Pot, the Cambodian dictator. Did Verges consider the people he defended criminals?

Durand-Souffland: No, I don't think so. He was always like that, always defend his clients, but not as clients, but as men and as victims. And some people hated him because of that, because sometimes he was going very far in the provocation.

Werman: Yeah, I imagine he had a lot of enemies.

Durand-Souffland: Yes, he had a lot of enemies in the '60s. French government wanted him to be dead. He could have been murdered. But at the end of his life, it's very, very curiously, he was well-estimated between the lawyers. The French lawyers consider him as a great lawyer. He was a respected man.

Werman: And if all of Verges' story wasn't dramatic enough, he shuffles off this mortal coil in the former apartment of Voltaire in Paris?

Durand-Souffland: Yes.

Werman: What was he doing there?

Durand-Souffland: At the end, those last months, he was very ill. He fell in a staircase and a friend of his proposed him to live in her apartment. And in this very apartment Voltaire died in the 18th century.

Werman: So what are your thoughts on this final act for Jacques Verges in the apartment of Voltaire?

Durand-Souffland: It's a very symbolic end for his life. You know, Voltaire used to say, I don't have your ideas, but I would die for you to defend them. Verges could have said that.

Werman: Stephane Durand-Souffland writes for the French newspaper Le Figaro. He's been telling us about the late French lawyer Verges who died yesterday. Thank you very much, Stephane.

Durand-Souffland: Thank you very much.