WASHINGTON — He called his memoir ‘‘The Shining Bastard’’ and likened himself to the great men of fiction ‘‘who stand alone against the establishment.’’ The Washington Post once described him as ‘‘a man who aspires to Scoundreldom.’’
Jacques Verges, the French lawyer known for his defense of the world’s most despised criminals, including the infamous Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie and Venezuelan-born terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez (better known as Carlos the Jackal), died Thursday in Paris. He was reported to be 88.
Mr. Verges died of a heart attack, according to his publisher Pierre-Guillaume de Roux, Reuters news agency reported.
Mr. Verges was born in Thailand to a Vietnamese mother and a Frenchman serving in the colonial diplomatic corps. He claimed that his father lost his job because of the mixed marriage, and he said the sting of prejudice he experienced in childhood motivated his legal work on behalf of outcasts.
In a career spanning more than five decades, Mr. Verges was one of the most enigmatic and provocative legal personalities in the world. He cultivated an air of mystery by vanishing for most of the 1970s, an absence that has never been explained.
To many, he was also deeply infuriating, a headline-monger, always ready with an audacious statement to draw attention to his clients and himself.
Defending Barbie, dubbed the ‘‘Butcher of Lyons’’ for his role in the deaths of thousands of Jews and French Resistance fighters during World War II, Mr. Verges said he found him ‘‘a respectable man . . . unjustly condemned.’’
In Carlos, the Marxist-inspired radical who orchestrated a series of bombings and kidnappings in the 1970s and 1980s, Mr. Verges saw ‘‘a man of taste . . . who feels at home in a dinner jacket.’’
‘‘I would have defended Hitler,’’ he told the German news magazine Der Spiegel in 2008. ‘‘Defending doesn’t mean excusing. A lawyer doesn’t judge, doesn’t condemn, doesn’t acquit. He tries to understand.’’
Mr. Verges first came to international attention in the late 1950s as an attorney for Algerians accused of terrorism in their quest for independence from France. Later clients included militants acting on behalf of Palestinian causes and members of left-wing terrorist factions in Germany.
When not defending revolutionaries, he was an advocate of choice for the reviled. Mr. Verges said he provided legal counsel to Khieu Samphan, the titular head of Cambodia’s widely reviled Khmer Rouge; Serbian leader and accused war criminal Slobodan Milosevic; and former Iraqi foreign minister Tariq Aziz, a top deputy to Saddam Hussein.
In rants against capitalism, racism, and the hypocrisy of Western society, Mr. Verges often turned the courtroom into a theater of political grandstanding. Defending the accused Algerian terrorists, he argued that they fought for independence from colonial overlords in France and therefore were not subject to judgment under French law.
His signature courtroom strategy was to minimize his client’s alleged crimes by redirecting attention to other historical acts of violence. In the Algerian cases, he pointed to France’s use of torture in the North African nation.
Another of his techniques was to humanize defendants who seemed indefensible. To Barbie, he said, ‘‘You’re not innocent, but neither are you a monster. You’re an officer . . . of an occupying army in a country that resists. You’re no better and no worse than a French officer in Algeria, an American officer in Vietnam, a Russian officer in Kabul.’’
For all his swagger, Mr. Verges was seldom vindicated at the bar. Barbie, for example, was sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity; he died in prison in 1991.
Jacques Verges was born in Siam (now Thailand) on April 20, 1924, or March 5, 1925 — he was not sure of the date.
After his father left diplomatic service, the family moved to the French-administered island of Reunion, in the Indian Ocean. Jacques was about 3 when his mother died. He and a twin brother were raised by their father, a physician who was active in the Communist Party and treated patients who could not afford hospital stays.
During World War II, Mr. Verges joined Charles de Gaulle’s Free French Forces and served as an artilleryman in North Africa, Italy, and France.
He later studied law in Paris, where his fellow students included future Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot. He would later recall the dictator as a ‘‘discreet, courteous, polite’’ man who ‘‘always enjoys a good laugh.’’ He once said the mass killings carried out in Cambodia under Pol Pot were lies perpetrated by newspapers that ‘‘always show the same heap of 30 skulls.’’ An estimated 1.7 million Cambodians died during Pol Pot’s brutal 1975-79 rule.
He represented numerous members of the anticolonial National Liberation Front in Algeria. One of Mr. Verges’s first important clients, Djamila Bouhired, was convicted of blowing up an Algerian cafe frequented by French soldiers. She was sentenced to death but was saved from the guillotine in 1958 by French President Rene Coty, who commuted her sentence to life imprisonment. Mr. Verges played a backstage role generating international opposition to Bouhired’s execution.
Bouhired was released after Algeria’s independence in 1962 and three years later married Mr. Verges, who had converted to Islam.
In the 1960s, Mr. Verges became a defense lawyer for Palestinians accused of hijacking and other forms of terrorism. Then, in early 1970, he vanished and was not seen publicly for eight years. He resurfaced in 1978 in Paris, where he returned to his legal work. He defended the Lebanese terrorist leader Georges Ibrahim Abdallah, who was sentenced to life in prison for complicity in plots to kill American and Israeli diplomats.