Last week, the French defence lawyer Jacques Verges died. This is not something that would normally find its way onto this blog, but he was a truly extraordinary man, having defended a large number of people that many of us would find utterly indefensible.
He was most perhaps most famous for defending the Nazi War Criminal Klaus Barbie, but also the Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Samphan, the Venezuelan-born terrorist Carlos the Jackal, members of the extreme left groups Red Army Faction and Direct Action, and war criminals Slobodan Milosovic and Saddam Hussein.
He was a dedicated anti colonialist, a former member of the Communist party and travelled with the French Resistance in world War II. He was born in Thailand to a French father and Vietnamese mother, and his childhood was spent on the island of Reunion.
So, why did his work matter? Why should we care about the monsters and his defence of them?
For a start, any nation that claims to respect human rights has to allow everyone to have a fair trial. This is not a qualified right, there are no degrees to it, even if it is overwhelmingly clear that the person has done bad things.
When asked if he would defend Hitler, he said he would, because “Defending doesn’t mean excusing. a lawyer doesn’t judge, doesn’t condemn, doesn’t acquit. He tries to understand. ”
Because the truth is that nobody acts in isolation. All these people who are held responsible for many innocent and unnecessary deaths have done so for a reason – no matter how misguided we would find this – and they did so with others. As yet another Middle Eastern country descends into violence and anarchy, we need to understand what is happening, and people like Verges are rare in trying to do this.
By a strange irony, or perhaps it is completely apt – Verges died in the same room as Voltaire, France’s hero of the Englightenment, also died.