Friday, July 10, 2009

The Luminous Bastard

One of the biggest characters on the international criminal law scene is the lawyer Jacques Vergès, who is defending Khieu Samphan, Democratic Kampuchea's head of state, in the ECCC. At least among lawyers, he has come to embody radical, postcolonial opposition to anything that smells of Western imperialism---including just about all of the international criminal tribunals. He has defended Algerian cafe bomber Djamila Bouhired; Carlos the Jackal, who shot up an OPEC meeting; Gestapo-member Klaus Barbie, aka the Butcher of Lyon; Slobodan Milošević; and Suddham Hussein; among others.

He is notorious for his courtroom tactics. During his defense of Djamila Bouhired (whom he later married), he baited the mob of racist Pieds-Noirs in the gallery, informing the court that "while their people were subsisting on acorns in the forest, my people were building palaces," waving the flag of the Algerian National Liberation Front, and generally raising a media ruckus that eventually resulted in Bouhired's release. His tactics are anything but lawyerly, but they've succeeded again and again, and made Vergès famous. What one can glean of his political philosophy seems caustic, if not nihilistic, but his tactics undoubtedly wreak havoc on hypocrisy.

Adding to his air of hard-core radical glamour, Vergès disappeared for about eight years in the nineteen-seventies, without telling Djamila or any of his friends where he went. They presumed that he was dead. Rumor has it that he was here in Cambodia, working to bring about the Khmer Rouge revolution; the surviving Khmer Rouge leaders deny it, but Vergès himself keeps mum.

On top of all that, Vergès is an extraordinarily eloquent man, and has (ironically) patterned himself as an old-school French intellectual, in the tradition of Diderot and Montaigne. He is also something of a bon vivant: impeccable clothes, swell apartments, big cigars, fine wines, and so forth. He entitled his autobiography Le Salaud Lumineux, or The Brilliant Bastard, in which he wrote "My moral is to be against every moral, because it seeks to lash down life."

His latest escapade, of course, is at the ECCC. His defendant isn't being tried yet, but Vergès has made some waves already in the Pre-Trial Chamber. During a routine hearing on some procedural matter, Vergès adopted his usual tactics, and went straight for the Court's weakest point: the atmosphere of corruption that has plagued the proceedings. After some heated colloquy, the judges insisted that Vergès restrict his arguments to the motion before the Chamber. Before moving on, he produced this gem:

"Firstly, I shall be silent because it is not for me to be more concerned about your honor than you yourselves are. If you consider that corruption should not be discussed, I am not going to force the discussion on you. I shall be silent because I understand your caution in this regard and I think that the presumption of innocence that you sometimes deny the accused may be of some benefit to you. And I shall be silent because the Head of the State which hosts you has stated publicly that he wishes you to leave, making of you, in a moral sense, squatters. I shall be silent also because a member of the Government of the country that hosts you stated that you were obsessed only by money, thus confirming the charge---be it grounded or not---of corruption, which blights the tribunal. Lastly---you see, I'll be brief---because it is not seemly to fire on ambulances and victims and the wounded; nor is it seemly to fire on hearses and those who are about to die."

In response, the Pre-Trial Chamber issued a "Warning" to Vergès to the effect that if he continues to obstruct the proceedings, they will sanction him; they sent a copy of the warning to the French Bar Association. A feeble rejoinder, in my opinion, to Vergès broadside. Whatever you think of him and his tactics, this exchange gives a sense of the force of his personality and intellect, and how difficult it is for a court to emerge from a tangle with him with its dignity intact. Vergès always plays his part to the hilt, making almost any response seem trivial by comparison.

This post is already too long, but I'll end by saying that while Vergès is something of a fringe figure, his critiques of international criminal justice are not unfounded. The other defense lawyers I've met here are principled people, who object to the strong element of theater that characterizes a tribunal like this one. Their most basic criticism---and it's a difficult one to counter---is that a court operating under such great political and historical pressure simply cannot realistically acquit its first few defendants. The first cases go forward on a presumption of guilt, not innocence, but are vigorously contested anyway, simply to present the appearance of neutral justice. This tribunal, like many others, is charged with restoring respect for the rule of law, a goal that doesn’t comport well with a show trial, however “just” the outcome. It’s just a shame that Vergès is such a toxic standard bearer for international criminal defense, which does critically important work and brings intellectual rigor to these kinds of courts.

There’s a documentary about Vergès called Terror’s Advocate; it’s very long, with a lot of talking heads and interviews with superannuated terrorists, but there are a lot of interviews with Vergès himself, which make for fascinating watching. There’s also a great interview available here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

From wiki; In 2002, he offered to represent former Serbian President Slobodan Milošević, although Milošević declined any legal advice from any party.
Verges never defended Milošević.
Thank you.