Defending Saddam: The French Connection?

Saddam Hussein is still in US custody, held at some secret location within Iraq, but presumably he will eventually be put on public trial in some way. That is certainly the plan announced by President Bush at the time of his capture, although exact details on the form, place, and machinery of this trial have been few and far between. This still raises the issue of legal defense – as in, who will conduct that for Saddam whenever the trial does happen. Recent developments seem to point to the involvement here of French nationals. (Wouldn’t you just know it? Pass me some more of those “freedom fries” . . .)

These happenings have yet to see much coverage on the on-line American press, at least judging from what I could come up with via Google News. The best article I could find introducing Jacques Vergès, the “cigar-chomping French attorney” supposedly preparing Saddam’s legal defense, was from the New York Post (and those editors neglectfully leave out the “e avec accent grave” – that is, the “è” – that makes up a vital part of this Frenchman’s last name). But that’s all OK, because there has been plenty of French coverage, and these writers not only get the accent right but also have plenty of material in the files about the past antics of Me Vergès (“Me” for maître, the French title for a lawyer).


The Nouvel Observateur probably puts this all together the best, in a background article simply entitled A Biography. And quite a biography it is, too. Me Vergès, born eighty years ago in Thailand of a French father and Vietnamese mother, is decidedly France’s equivalent of, say, Mark Geragos, an attorney renowned for taking up “hopeless” defense cases which no other lawyer will touch. He defended Front de Libération Nationale, or FLN, guerrillas – that is, those who were fighting for the liberation of Algeria from French rule – while the Algerian War was still going on; he defended the “Butcher of Lyon” of the Gestapo, Klaus Barbie; he defended a serial killer (one Charles Sobrhraj) and even that infamous terrorist Carlos the Jackal, for heaven’s sake. He also was recently the attorney presenting Slobodan Milosevic’s case before the European Court of Human Rights.

Those are just the more notable of the notorious criminal cases whose defense he has taken up; as for Me Vergès’ private life, as recounted by the Nouvel Observateur, that has involved fighting during World War II for the Free French Forces (OK, score one for him), and then joining the French Communist Party in 1945. This took him to go live in Prague from 1951 to 1954, for training as a international Communist functionary. (Those were the years of Stalin and the show trials; you can be sure that Prague was not a very fun place then.) He quit the Communist Party in 1957, only to marry one Djamila Bouhired, known for the bombings she had perpetrated during the Algerian War. (I wonder what their domestic quarrels were like?) Most mysteriously of all, as the Nouvel Observateur puts it, from 1970 to 1978 Me Vergès simply disappeared. “I passed to the other side of the looking-glass,” is all that he will say; some think he spent that time involved with the Khmer Rouge. (Maybe that’s simply what you do when, at home, your domestic quarrels are getting way out of hand.)


In any event, as Le Monde described things (in Me Jacques Vergès Should Vouch for Saddam Hussein’s Defense), it’s no surprise that this particular lawyer is involved, as he had already taken up the defense of Tariq Aziz, one of Saddam’s top lieutenants (and Foreign Minister before and during the 1991 Gulf War), traveling last December to Amman, Jordan, to do preliminary research and make contacts in connection with that. Now he claims that, by the authority of Saddam’s nephew as presented in a letter, he is to be at the head of the former Iraqi dictator’s defense, leading a team of around a dozen French international legal experts. He’s already let the legal strategy he intends to use be known, and here the New York Post account is on the right track. Saddam might be a pariah now, he claims, “but this pariah was the friend of all the Western heads-of-state. He was not only their friend, he was their ally.” The arms Saddam employed, including the chemical weapons, were supplied to him by Pierre, Paul et Jacques (the French equivalent, as you might guess, of “Tom, Dick, and Harry” – i.e. by everyone). Everyone knew what he intended to use them for, and turned a blind eye then, so it is rather hypocritical of everyone to turn on him now.

Vergès’ arguments are amplified in a later Le Monde article (Me Jacques Vergés Sketches Saddam Hussein’s Defense). To prove how Saddam once was the West’s friend, Vergès intends to call to the witness-stand of any trial Henry Kissinger and Donald Rumsfeld, characterizing the latter as a “traveling salesman of toxins and chemical elements.” If Saddam ever did have Weapons of Mass Destruction, Vergès claims, it was the Americans and the English who sold it to him. Further: “It was not Saddam Hussein but the Americans and the English who bombarded the water-treatment plants and the hospitals. If there were crimes against humanity, if there was genocide, it is the handiwork of the English and the Americans.”

Right, then. At least he has clearly taken up his client’s case and made it his own. But here’s the “rest of the story”: it is by no means sure that Jacques Vergès will actually serve as Saddam Hussein’s defense lawyer! This is the development that the New York Post missed, but which both Le Monde and the Nouvel Observateur recount in detail in recent articles.


Jacques Vergès “is not the legitimate counsel of Saddam Hussein,” declared Me Mohamed Rashdan in an interview with another French newspaper, Le Parisien. (I’d give you that link, but the article has already disappeared behind Le Parisien’s pay-to-view window.) He might be in a position to know: Me Rashdan himself served as Saddam’s lawyer back during the Gulf War. More to the point, Rashdan is involved with another movement which is being formed to provide Saddam’s legal defense, namely a “Committee for the defense of the former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and Iraqi prisoners,” formed by the Union of Arab Lawyers (French abbreviation UAA, based in Cairo), whose formation was announced on 29 March. The UAA has cooperated with Me Vergès in the past – notably when he defended the philosopher Roger Garaudy against charges of denying the Holocaust – and it could conceivably cooperate with him again, says Saber Ammar, Secretary-General of that special Saddam committee, but right now the committee has nothing to do with him, and is instead working with another French lawyer, a Me Emannuel Ludot from Reims, to coordinate Saddam’s defense among an international network of attorneys, and (according to the Le Monde article) has in fact been doing so since Saddam’s capture last December. Me Rashdan is certainly also involved – he is heading a Jordanian organization of supposedly 800 lawyers to work in Saddam’s defense, and he claims to have the blessing of Saddam Hussein’s wife, Sajida – but only on the conditions, according to Me Ludot, that he neither act “as a free electron nor as a lone knight.”

Vergès, it would seem, resembles rather too much for the taste of the personnel of the “Committee for the defense” of Saddam such a knight, or maybe it’s the electron, at least at present. In any event, Vergès does correctly point out that, for all this talk of wives and nephews, Saddam himself has not yet exactly had the chance to express his own preferences about his legal defense, having up to now only been allowed a visit by the International Red Cross. And when there are already 800 Jordanian lawyers ready to go to work in Saddam’s defense, what’s another French one added into the mix? Look for this tempest-in-a-teapot over who by rights can claim the mantel of Saddam’s defense to be over quickly, as all sides join forces to take up this challenging task together – and to start preparing the judicial summons for Kissinger, Rumsfeld, et al.

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