In France, When a Terrorist Needs a Lawyer, Jacques Vergès Usually Gets the Call

updated 03/09/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/09/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

To look at him, Jacques Vergès seems harmless enough. He is unfailingly courteous and appears much younger than his 61 years. Twice divorced, he leads a private life that tends toward the solitary. So it surprises many to discover that he is also France's most provocative defense lawyer, a devil's advocate whose client list is peppered with unsavory characters—accused terrorists and public enemies of the extreme left and right. "I go against the current," Vergès concedes with a pugnacious smile. "I defend criminals, that's my profession."

Currently the defendant in direst need of Vergès' services is Georges Ibrahim Abdallah, 36, the alleged head of a terrorist organization called the Lebanese Armed Revolutionary Factions (FARL). The group's announced aim is to "export the war against American and Zionist imperialism." Already imprisoned in France for possessing weapons and false identity papers, Abdallah is now on trial for complicity in the 1982 assassinations in Paris of U.S. military attaché Charles Ray and Israeli diplomat Yacov Barsimantov.

Vergès contends that there are "no witnesses, no documents" and therefore no case against his client. He claims that American political pressure largely prompted French authorities to bring Abdallah to trial at considerable risk. A series of random bombings in Paris last year, in which at least 10 innocent people were killed and scores injured, were widely believed to be the work of the FARL to force Abdallah's release. Now some fear the terrorists will strike again.

True to form, the attorney says he intends to turn the Abdallah case around by putting France's often vacillating Middle East policies on trial. "He is very clever, a great orator, and he knows how to find flaws in the law," observes lawyer Jean-Augustin Terrin. But others are not so impressed. "Vergès is used to saying anything to attract the media," says attorney Serge Klarsfeld. "His way of practicing law is annoying because it is not necessarily based on facts."

In a sense, Vergès has always hovered on the fringes of French society. Jacques and his twin, Paul, were born in Thailand of a French father whose diplomatic career was cut short because of his marriage to a Vietnamese. The Eurasian brothers grew up on Reunion island in the Indian Ocean in "a very leftist environment" that fed on opposition to racism and colonialism. While still in their teens during World War II, the twins made their way to Europe to serve with distinction in Charles de Gaulle's Free French forces. Afterward Jacques studied history at the Sorbonne, joined the Communist Party, married a Frenchwoman and fathered a son.

Admitted to the Paris Bar in 1955, Vergès specialized in defending the FLN, the Algerian independence movement. One client was 22-year-old Djamila Bouhired, convicted of an Algiers café bombing. Her sentence of death by guillotine was ultimately commuted and, after her release in a political settlement, she married Vergès (who by then had shed both his first wife and the Communist Party; his twin is still a Communist deputy in France's parliament). Vergès' second marriage produced a daughter and a son but also ended in divorce. Through most of the '70s the lawyer embarked on the most mysterious stretch of his life: He simply vanished. There is speculation that he was in a Palestinian camp, or maybe Moscow, but Vergès refuses to explain. "I passed over to the other side of the mirror," he says. "It was my grand vacation."

In 1979 he returned from wherever he had been to resume his court battles. Georges Ibrahim Abdallah aside, Vergès' most notorious client is Nazi Klaus Barbie. As an SS officer during the German occupation of France in World War II, Barbie, dubbed "the Butcher of Lyons," is said to have ordered the death-camp deportation of thousands of French civilians, most of them Jews. Discovered hiding in Bolivia, Barbie was expelled in 1983 to face charges of crimes against humanity.

Typically, Vergès prepares for his daunting cases by working 13-hour days in a Paris town house that is both his office and home, assisted by only a young law associate and two secretaries. He charges no fee for clients such as Abdallah and Barbie (both of whom sought him out) and stays solvent through his billings to stolid, respectable French firms for whom he does much of his legal work.

Vergès insists that he does not approve of terrorist tactics. "These are acts that deeply distress me, and I'd like to see them stopped," he says. Still, he describes Abdallah as "an Arab resister, leading a combat that I cannot judge. I am for those who fight for their dignity, their liberty and the possibility of choice, even if their choice is bad."

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