Against the law
For Jacques Vergès, no client is indefensible. But does his defence of a top Khmer Rouge leader undermine the principles he has spent his career proclaiming? Stéphanie Giry reports
Khieu Samphan and Jacques Vergès, two ageing men with thin-rimmed glasses and thickened waists, were sitting on a floor mat, shoeless, having tea. It was late August 2006, in a room at the Renakse hotel in central Phnom Penh. Khieu, the former president of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge and a Pol Pot loyalist to the end, was still free. But he was growing nervous as a UN-backed tribunal was ramping up its efforts to indict the few surviving Khmer Rouge leaders for war crimes and crimes against humanity. So he had called on his old friend Vergès, defender of terrorists and tyrants. Khieu Samphan wore brown polyester pants, Vergès a beige linen suit. They called each other “Maître” and “Président” and reminisced about the time when they had no titles – their student days in Paris in the 1950s. And they strategised.
My presence was part of the plan. Vergès’ first move was to present Khieu as neither a monster nor an ideologue but a reasonable man and a patriot. Vergès had already argued, in a preface to Khieu’s 2004 memoir The History of Cambodia and the Positions I Took, that while Khieu was Cambodia’s president under the Khmer Rouge, he was only their “fellow traveller”. “The Khmer Rouge leadership resorted not to persuasion but to coercion and eventually to crimes against the human person,” Vergès wrote, with deliberate vagueness, of the regime’s 1.7 million victims, and “in these crimes, Khieu never took part directly.”
And now here was Khieu in my hotel room, across the street from the Silver Pagoda, where he and Pol Pot and other top Khmer Rouge had set up headquarters soon after marching into Phnom Penh in April 1975. He was explaining away some of the regime’s fateful decisions: the evacuation of the cities, the abolition of money, forced collectivisation. “I am asked how I could have killed my own people. Please! Me, wanting to kill my people?” Khieu said, pounding his chest. But, he explained, “once engaged, one must go all the way. One cannot anticipate the costs. It’s true, the costs turned out to be very high, but we had no choice.”
A month earlier, in Paris, Vergès had asked me, “Do you know who was the Soviet head of state under Stalin? No? Well, that’s Khieu Samphan’s defence.” Khieu’s defence, in true Vergès style, would also argue that the US, with its bombing campaigns in eastern Cambodia and its backing of the hapless government of General Lon Nol, had created the conditions for the Khmer Rouge’s rise – namely, an impending famine and the risk of annexation by Vietnam.
When we met again at the Renakse the next day, I asked about torture and executions under the Khmer Rouge. Khieu became agitated. “There are instances when one cannot both respect human rights and protect a country’s independence,” he said. Americans and Europeans don’t understand this point, he chided, because the survival of their nations is no longer in question. Vergès chimed in with a small smile and his clear, magisterial voice: “And when their independence is threatened, Western states also are capable of committing acts that the laws condemn.” He recited a litany of atrocities committed by the Allies during the Second World War – from Dresden to Hiroshima – and yet, he added, “there was never any question of prosecuting them”.
This was vintage Vergès. With Khieu, he was returning to his first political love – the anti-colonial struggle – and applying the tactics he had honed in half a century of polemical lawyering: flipping the charges back against the accuser, appealing to public opinion. Vergès’ list of clients includes two dozen members of the Front de Libération National (FLN), who bombed Algeria’s way out from under French domination in the 1950s, and later, the extended clique of pro-Palestinian lefty radicals who bombed their way to nowhere in the 1970s and 1980s (chief among them Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, aka Carlos the Jackal). Then there are the despots the West forcibly deposed (Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein) and the African strongmen with whom it maintains sketchy ties (Idriss Déby, Omar Bongo, Gnassingbé Eyadéma); the Nazi Klaus Barbie; the serial killer Charles Sobhraj, aka the Serpent.
Vergès defends people deemed to be indefensible, and for that he’s often called the Devil’s Advocate. He relishes both the moniker and the attention. Jean-Louis Simoën, his editor and friend, explained, “Some people take drugs. He gets high on television.” His grand pronouncements, provocative arguments, and political radicalism suggest some combination of Alan Dershowitz, Noam Chomsky and Voltaire.
But this flamboyance easily misleads. Vergès may be a megalomaniac who is fascinated with the peculiar integrity of fanatics, but he’s also a committed polemicist, with a deep sympathy for political underdogs. He has represented many sympathetic defendants and quirky causes: Muslim girls who wear headscarves in school, a prostitute seeking back pay from her pimp, Aids patients contaminated by tainted blood transfusions because the government skimped on screening procedures. What brings together all of Vergès’ cases, the notorious and the anonymous, is an approach to law that is part moral, part aesthetic, part political, part prudential. Crime isn’t an aberration, he says; the capacity for transgression is what distinguishes humans from animals. This is why Vergès believes it is wrong and dangerous, not to mention inelegant, to treat criminals, terrorists and despots as if they were exceptions and driven by forces that cannot touch the rest of us. He adds a noblesse-oblige twist to this view by arguing that to properly defend a criminal a lawyer must restore his dignity and present “his” truth.
These notions could be construed as a kind of radical humanism, but Vergès is so unrelenting and defiant in their application that the bien-pensants find it difficult to agree with him. Instead, they identify him with his clients and consider him immoral. Rather than deny the charges, Vergès plays along – and relishes the bravado. Of course he would have defended Hitler, he has told reporters many, many times. He’d even defend George W Bush, he always adds – so long as Bush pled guilty.
And yet, behind this provocation, too, there are principles. This one runs through his books and conversations like a motto: “a lawyer must be capable of defending everyone so long as he remains coherent”. There are no indefensible clients – just indefensible arguments. But now the case of Khieu may pose the greatest test yet to Vergès’ coherence. Whereas Vergès’ work for the FLN, which launched his career, helped midwife the independence of one country, now he is defending a movement that almost turned another into a charnel. This poses a challenge for Vergès not so much because the Khmer Rouge ended up on the wrong side of history, but because what brought them there – oppression, slavery and torture – are crimes that Vergès has spent his career denouncing.
Born in Thailand in 1925, Jacques Vergès grew up in a quirky, brainy household in the far-flung French territory of La Réunion, raised largely by a doting great aunt and his father, a globe-trotting doctor and part-time consul, who, after serving in Indochina, founded and led La Réunion’s branch of the French communist party. (His mother, who was Vietnamese, died when he was three.) From this, Vergès absorbed an idiosyncratic mix of principles, including this defining combination: a keen sensitivity for the plight of the colonised alongside a full education in the soaring values of the French Enlightenment. He came of age fighting for independence: as a teenager during the Second World War, with Charles de Gaulle’s forces; then, as a communist student activist in Paris and Prague; finally, by joining a lawyers’ collective to defend the FLN, the main group opposing France’s occupation of Algeria.
Representing the FLN meant denouncing both colonialism and torture, and in Djamila Bouhired, an FLN runner facing the death penalty, Vergès found an uncannily perfect embodiment of the cause: a young woman of unshakeable commitment, stoic and eloquent, who had been tortured by French officers. But it was a hard case. A lynch-mob vibe dominated her trial. Paratroopers packed the courtroom daily; the prosecutors and the judges took procedural shortcuts. Vergès was threatened; a colleague was assassinated. With Vergès effectively muzzled, Bouhired was sentenced to death.
Vergès immediately launched a massive public relations offensive. He published the closing argument he hadn’t been allowed to deliver in court, prompting waves of petitions, letters of sympathy, and demonstrations clamouring for her pardon. “Djamila” became a cause célèbre. And soon, her death sentence was commuted to life in prison.
Vergès and Barbie in court at the opening of Barbie’s trial in May 1987. Lyon’s courthouse was converted to accommodate a raised stage for the judges and 800 folding chairs for the audience. Peter Turnley / Corbis
The “rupture” defence was born. Vergès had managed to exploit the irreconcilable gap between the French military tribunal, which considered the members of the FLN to be terrorists, and the defendants, who saw France as an illegal occupier and called themselves Algerians and freedom fighters. Facing a certain loss in court, Vergès thought that “the only way to change the power dynamic” was “to turn to public opinion” – and put the court and its patrons on trial. This was a simple notion but a radical departure from the conventional defence strategy adopted by Vergès’ liberal colleagues – what he calls la connivence, or collusion – which sought leniency in sentencing by minimising the guilt of the accused.
Some say Vergès’ approach flopped in Algeria: all of his clients were sentenced to death. He says it succeeded: none were executed. It was the defendants who played nice and pled extenuating circumstances that went to the guillotine. Vergès may have lost the legal case in court, but he won the political battle outside it. In fact, he won two political battles: he saved his clients’ lives while publicising their struggle, and he indicted the French government’s practices in Algeria.
Vergès’ campaign continued after Algeria’s independence, in 1962, but the golden years were over. He married Bouhired, who had been released from prison and was now a national heroine (he had separated from his first wife, with whom he had one son, a few years earlier). They had two children and a half-settled domestic life as he shuttled between Paris and Algiers. He failed to get the job he had hoped for working in the first Algerian government, and began to publish a Maoist political magazine. He took on cases defending Palestinian terrorists – the big national liberation struggle of the time – but with limited success. Already, it seemed that Vergès’ political, professional and personal interests might never converge as perfectly as they had in his work for the FLN.
The student riots of May 1968, even though they eventually helped bring down the French government, seemed “like a mockery” to Vergès, “a kind of happening for earnest bourgeois and prudent dissenters, like a huge ideological orgy”. One evening in February 1970, he attended a political rally in Paris, and then he vanished, leaving his family, his friends, and his career behind. He didn’t reappear for almost nine years.
Vergès lives and works in a private house near Pigalle, Paris’s mouldy red-light district. It is white and has a grey slate roof, and its shutters are always closed. He spends much of his time in a dark office on the second floor, past a vast antechamber with two big African statues lording over a collection of chessboards. The room is a picture of well worn opulence: a dark cerulean rug, champagne silk on some walls, the complete works of Balzac and Nietzsche lining the others. It was in this lair at the end of our first meeting, in 2004, that I asked him the obligatory question about his disappearance. Fat cigar in hand, head framed by a majestic peacock on the tapestry hanging behind him, he fed me one of the stock answers he routinely repeats to journalists: “Those were my sabbatical years.” (Another: “I went through the looking glass.”) Vergès’ disclosures are as carefully curated as his decor.
He mongers mystery to spark speculation: although he volunteers no information about where he spent the 1970s, he denies almost no theory. He might have left to escape creditors, a life grown too mundane, or a shady affair involving the unexplained death of former Congolese prime minister Patrice Lumumba’s presumed assassin. Or, struck by the revolutionary’s midlife crisis, he might have gone off looking for a new cause. A favoured hypothesis is that he rallied the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia – but Barbet Schroeder’s documentary, Terror’s Advocate, seems to disprove it. Stints at PLO bases in the Middle East appear more likely, if marginally so, as does, perhaps, an extended visit to China. Carlos the Jackal says that Vergès travelled “here and there” until he was arrested, tortured and flipped by Western secret services. “The French had him by the balls,” Carlos told me by phone, in 2006, from the maximum-security prison where he is serving a life sentence. Vergès won’t talk about that time, according to Carlos, “because he cannot, because he broke down.”
In saying so little, Vergès reveals a steely discipline, and a public persona both genuine and thoroughly constructed. He is flamboyant the better to be withholding. Although he is often wry and irreverent, and thus charming company, interactions with him have a hollow quality; they lack emotional resonance. The third floor of the house in Pigalle is off-limits to even his closest friends. Jean-Louis Simoën recalled with a chill the reunion between Vergès and the cartoonist Siné, one of Vergès’ oldest friends, after his years of disappearance. “I’ll remember the scene for the rest of my life,” Simoën told me a couple of years ago. Joy flashed for a minute at most, and then, “once the emotion had passed, the man was of marble. Everything slid off him. Nothing. Impenetrable.”
Vergès reappeared unannounced in Paris in late 1978. Djamila had left with the children; he had a practice to rebuild. François Mitterrand was soon elected president, marking the ascent of la gauche caviar, an elite socialism that Vergès abhors as wimpy and hypocritical. It was also the heyday of radical leftist terrorism, and in short order, Vergès became one of its regular counsels. He resumed his work for the Palestinian cause and started representing its new foot soldiers in Europe: Magdalena Kopp and Bruno Bréguet (who ferried explosives for Carlos); Georges Ibrahim Abdallah (who had murdered the US military attaché in Paris); Khomeini’s hitman Anis Naccache (who botched the assassination of the Shah of Iran’s last prime minister); and later, Carlos himself.
For Isabelle Coutant-Peyre, then Vergès’ apprentice, now Carlos’s lawyer and wife, the 1980s were days of “ébullition” and fun. They were also among the shadiest in Vergès’ career. Declassified Stasi documents suggest Vergès was in regular contact with Carlos, before and beyond what was required to defend him or his associates. (Vergès denies this.) He is said to have been on a hit list of the French government antiterrorism’s unit. (Of this, he is convinced.) Haunting a number of these cases was the spectre of François Genoud, a Swiss Nazi sympathiser and Hitler’s literary executor, who is believed to have paid the legal bills. Genoud is also said to have funded the most infamous of Verges’ cases: the defence of the Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie.
Barbie, aka the Butcher of Lyon, was arrested in Bolivia in 1983 and extradited to France, for killing members of the French Resistance and ordering the deportation of some 300 Jews. Vergès took the case, confounding people who had admired him for fighting the Nazi occupation of France. Even those who agreed that Barbie deserved a lawyer, and a good one, never forgave Vergès the violence of his tactics.
The trial opened on May 11, 1987. It was to be a grand affair: a history lesson and morality tale played out before a national audience – France’s Eichmann trial. The largest room in Lyon’s main courthouse, with vaulted ceilings and giant colonnades, was converted to accommodate a raised stage for the judges and 800 folding chairs for the audience. To the left of the bench were rows of prosecutors and representatives of victims’ groups – 39 in all. On the other side, sat Barbie – dark suit, dark tie, an Italian collar – and below him, Vergès, with his chin raised. Barbie had a Sphinx’s smile that offended and made headlines. On the second day he contested the court’s authority: having been kidnapped, he stood before the judges as “a hostage, not a prisoner.” He appeared in court again only once.
Vergès stole the show in Barbie’s absence. He never delivered the dirt about betrayal among top Résistants that he had advertised in the lead-up to the trial, but he inflicted plenty of other damage. He argued, halfway convincingly, that the one document linking Barbie to an order to deport 44 Jewish children was a fake. He challenged, brutally, little old ladies from the Resistance as they choked up recounting scenes of torture. (It was “anatomically impossible” for a dog to rape a woman, as one witness claimed to have seen.) He was accused of singing German love songs in Barbie’s cell (an erroneous rumour, he told me, but why contest it?); he was spotted dining at Bocuse with Barbie’s daughter and son-in-law (“extremely respectable people”). He delivered his closing argument flanked by two other lawyers, an Algerian and a Congolese, and the trio, a kind of “We Are the World” legal coalition, claimed that European slavery and recent massacres at the Palestinian refugee camps in Sabra and Chatila were, like the Nazi concentration camps, crimes against humanity.
Françoise Capéran, a philosophy teacher who was covering the trial for French radio, recalled the rhetorical power of Vergès’ final argument: “There had been others. There had been worse. The construction of the railroad in Congo: one black dead for every crossbeam! Vergès was inhabited by this. And you could hear it! You could hear it! The dead were speaking. Any dead. Blacks, yellows, those who are less educated than we, those who believe in gods we find silly – no matter. A man is a man.” Capéran signed up on the spot to work for Vergès and, then to help ward off charges that he was an anti-Semite, asked to be called by her mother’s maiden name, Bloch. She now keeps his books, screens his calls, and orders his flu shots.
But if denying the Holocaust its specificity inspired Bloch as a kind of universalism, to many more observers the argument reeked of bigotry. In his book about the trial, Remembering in Vain, the philosopher Alain Finkielkraut claims that “the spectacular collusion of the representatives of the Third World with a Nazi torturer” made “a mockery of the Nuremberg Trials.” Friends and colleagues of Vergès also balked at the moral equivalency; it appeared to betray his own values. Vergès had lambasted the French in Algeria for behaving as badly as the Nazis, and now he was absolving a Nazi for doing no worse than the French? The revolutionary seemed to have become a cynic, a mercenary paid in publicity.
Vergès insists he was being coherent. “I would like to defend my worst enemy; that would be the greatest moral,” he has said. He explains his decision to take the case: “Friends told me: ‘Barbie must be defended but not by you.’ But he cannot be defended by a collaborator: Nazis and collaborators meet. If he is defended by a former Free French, then it was worth fighting the war, then we have a real democracy.” Over the years, Vergès has told me, “I wouldn’t have defended Barbie if I had had to argue the superiority of the Aryan race,” and “I used to tell Barbie, ‘You are not innocent. You are not better.’”
In other words, Vergès wasn’t defending Barbie’s actions, his values, or his character; he was explaining Barbie’s plight. Vergès was arguing that, much like a French officer in Algeria or an American soldier during the Vietnam War, Barbie was “a tragic character of our time: the subordinate officer of an occupation army in a country that resists.” And as in Algeria and Vietnam, in Nazi-occupied France, the real culprits were the politicians. “By turning him into a monster, you exonerate Nazism. But if you say that he is a simple, pious character, then you condemn the regime, and that is much more important.”
It was especially important for Vergès. Insisting on the “extreme modesty” of Barbie’s position allowed Verges to transcend the apparent contradiction of his defending a man who embodied the type of oppression and torture he had denounced in his work for the FLN. With that rhetorical pirouette, Verges turned Barbie’s trial on its head and indicted the French government – including the sitting president, Mitterrand, who had served as interior minister and justice minister during the Algerian War – for having once ordered crimes similar to those for which they were now trying Barbie. The Barbie case was not a detour from Vergès’ path; it was a return to its starting point. It was a chance for Vergès to relitigate the Algerian War, and on a far grander stage.
Vergès’ style can be so dramatic and provocative as to overshadow the purpose it is meant to serve. It can also make him appear callous toward his clients’ victims. He handled some of the witnesses at Barbie’s trial with inexplicable virulence. He seems generally unconcerned with the victims’ experiences. He has not seen Shoah: “It doesn’t interest me. I’m not a negationist, but whether 500,000 or six million were killed does not change the horror of the story.” He has never visited – and has refused my invitations to go to – S-21, the prison in Phnom Penh where the Khmer Rouge tortured and later executed more than 12,000 people. Predictable in their pain, anger, righteousness, the victims tend to be less interesting to Vergès than the perpetrators. “I understand immediately the 3,000 questions posed by the victims of September 11,” Vergès told me. “The one who poses a real question about our time is bin Laden.”
Some claim that, though he is more interested in his clients, he is just as ruthless with them. Vergès says that defending Barbie was an “opportunity to see the Resistance at work in France. Who betrayed? How did the Germans behave?” But others believe he used the man for his own ends. Vergès, goes the charge, is an opportunist: rather than mastering the technical aspects of his clients’ cases, he uses them to grandstand in the limelight.
But by now, a kind of quid pro quo has developed between Vergès and his customers: some serve Vergès’ notoriety, but his reputation serves their cases, too. In 1994, he defended Omar Raddad, a Moroccan gardener accused of murdering his rich French employer based on flimsy circumstantial evidence. The jury convicted Raddad anyway, but as soon as the verdict was announced, Vergès made a stink about some procedural irregularities. Turning to journalists on the steps of the courthouse, he indicted the judgment, the tribunal, the judicial system, and all of French society with one swift reference to the Dreyfus affair. “One hundred years ago, an officer was condemned for being Jewish. Today, a gardener is condemned for being North African.” Raddad was pardoned within two years and freed within four.
Now Vergès seems on a mission to outbid himself, in and out of court. These days, he is performing in a one-man show called Serial Plaideur, a play by him, with him, and for him. On a stage recreating his office, with some of his own furniture on loan, he riffs on the transformative power of trials by way of Socrates and Antigone, Joan of Arc and Stendhal.
After decades excoriating the French establishment, he has increasingly turned his ire toward the United States and the international community, and volunteered to represent more “hypertrophic beings,” as Simoën puts it – Saddam, Milosevic, Khieu Samphan.
At the same time, the evolution and increasing deployment of international criminal law has left a dramatic gap between these new legal norms and Vergès’ views. “The notion of crimes against humanity, of which democracies are so proud,” he has written, “is, in its application, obscene. It applies only to crimes committed by others.” When there was talk, in 2004, of his defending Saddam, Vergès warned that he would summon then US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to explain a certain well-photographed handshake. In 2006, Vergès and Dr Patrick Barriot published the pamphlet How The Hague Tribunal Eliminated Slobodan Milosevic, arguing that the ailing Milosevic had been left to die in detention at The Hague. Again and again, Vergès denounces traditional bourgeois society for embracing grand principles but readily renouncing them when they become inexpedient. And for him, international criminal law, western democracies’ grand contribution to contemporary jurisprudence, expresses this hypocrisy to the nth degree.
Françoise Vergès, Vergès’ niece and an academic, says that his contribution during the Algerian war allowed everyone to “be less ashamed later.” But what about his work now? When Vergès points out that the West’s motivations are political, he seems to imply that such inconsistencies necessarily invalidate any effort to call other groups – the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge – to account for their crimes. Be perfect or be quiet. He doesn’t ask the harder, and perhaps more important, question of how to confront all the parties’ mistakes without letting the flaws of one foreclose an assessment of the others.
Vergès with Khieu Samphan in Phnom Penh, August 2006: Vergès’ work for the FLN, which launched his career, helped midwife the independence of one country; now he is defending a movement that almost destroyed another. Photo by Stéphanie Giry
The case of Khieu is another easy opportunity for Vergès to flay the West, especially the United States, which helped set up this shoddy tribunal to judge Khmer Rouge leaders only after backing them diplomatically for two decades. But it is complicated in every other respect. Whereas the FLN fought both for independence and against torture, the Khmer Rouge might be said to have fought for independence and then to have justified torture and more – utopian social reengineering, mass deaths – in its name. In other words, Khieu’s case pits Vergès’ two main causes against each other. Hence the need to argue that Khieu wasn’t a big decider, just a “fellow traveller.” Only Khieu wasn’t just the head officer of a provincial city, like Barbie. He was a country’s president. Vergès’ usual sweeping style risks disserving him against this messy backdrop. Unless he can bring down the whole tribunal before Khieu’s trial even begins, his bombast, no matter how brilliant, could turn him into a caricature of himself.
Vergès travelled to Phnom Penh in April to argue that Khieu should be released from detention as preparations for his trial were dragging on. Suspicions were high because of a near-brawl with victims at a press conference last December, and because Vergès had already been reprimanded for claiming that the court’s failure to translate every single page of the case file into French, his working language, made the whole procedure “void”. In the meantime, the tribunal had also got itself into some trouble. Long accused of being too slow — only one of the five defendants, Duch, the commander of the S-21 torture centre, is on trial — more recently it had been hampered by budget shortages, corruption charges, and a disagreement among the prosecutors about whether to indict more surviving Khmer Rouge leaders, including a few who sit in the current Cambodian government.
The night before the hearing, Sa Sovan, Khieu’s Cambodian lawyer, treated some colleagues to dinner at a favourite Chinese restaurant. Vergès, Duch’s lawyer François Roux, and two junior attorneys were ushered into a windowless back room. Sa Sovan ordered for the table, and the conversation soon turned to court news: the latest bailout from the Japanese government and prime minister Hun Sen’s recent warning that more indictments would prompt civil war. Vergès was high from a strategy meeting that afternoon at which several defence lawyers had discussed leveraging the corruption issue to their clients’ benefit. The smoked pork and black-chicken soup took a spin on the Lazy Susan. Roux goaded Vergès. “You really should raise the corruption issue. You’d get a second warning.” Vergès smiled. “Last time, I was thunderous. Tomorrow, I will be perfidious.”
The next morning, behind a wall of bulletproof glass, Sa Sovan and the prosecutors droned on in Khmer debating whether the ageing and ailing Khieu would flee or intimidate witnesses if released. Vergès didn’t bother to listen to the translation through his headphones. Slouched back in his swivel chair, he was staring at the ceiling and spinning around, at times with his back to the bench Eventually, Judge Rowan Downing, an Australian with silver curls, asked him to reply to the prosecutors’ objections. Vergès said he wanted to express concerns about corruption. Downing responded that the matter was not on the agenda.
Vergès, suddenly stentorian, claimed to agree: “I will be quiet because I should not be more concerned about your honour than you are yourselves. If you believe that we should not discuss corruption here, I will not force the discussion on you. I will be quiet because I understand your caution in this regard and believe that the presumption of innocence you sometimes deny the accused might benefit you. I will be quiet because the head of state who hosts you has said publicly that he wants you to leave, turning you into moral squatters. I will be quiet because the head of state who hosts you has said that you are interested only in money, corroborating the accusations, grounded or not, that corruption plagues this tribunal.”
Roux wasn’t in court that afternoon, but when he walked into the defence lawyers’ office later that day, Vergès repeated his tirade point by point. Roux chuckled. “They said nothing,” Vergès said, in disbelief, of the judges. “They didn’t budge?” Roux asked, chuckling some more. “I think this tribunal is over,” Vergès said. “I think I made my contribution, by turning the possibility into a probability. I tell you, it was like saying to a call girl, ‘You’re such a whore.’” Roux went “Ohhhh,” in mock outrage. They laughed.
Soon Vergès said his goodbyes. In a few hours he would be flying to La Réunion – the next stop, before Beirut, Damascus and Spoleto, on the world tour of his new one-man show.
Stéphanie Giry is deputy managing editor at Foreign Affairs. Travel for this article was partly funded by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.