How can a lawyer defend the monsters of history?
“With the same spirit of a doctor who would never refuse to cure them.
… a lawyer’s profession doesn’t only lie in the exercise of a technique but also and mainly in the attitude of burdening itself with mankind, whether or not guilty.”
was born in 1925 in Ubon Rachtani (present day Thailand) to a Vietnamese mother and a father from the French island of Réunion. From his adolescence he was deeply interested in politics, and after finishing high school he left Réunion to join the French Resistance. In 1945 he became a member of the French Communist Party, but left in 1957. He took a law degree and his career as a lawyer has always been influenced by his political beliefs. In the period between 1970 and 1978, he disappeared completely and he has never revealed where he spent those years, although many theories have been put forward that he was in Lebanon or Moscow, or else collaborating with Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge.
Recognized for his anti-colonialism, during his career he has defended Algerian guerrilla fighters like Djamila Bouhired, the Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie, and the terrorist Carlos, basing his defense on an extremely original method: a system defined as “rupture defense” in which the defendant accuses those who have put him on trial and calls public opinion as his defense witness.
(from an interview by Frédéric Franck to Jacques Vergès)
A theatre stage is the perfect backdrop for pleading a lawsuit that would be impossible in real life. Following the war, had it been possible to place Hitler on trial, would you have been willing to act as Hitler’s defense counsel? And if so, what would a “rupture defense” have resembled in relation to such a person, who would have been charged, among other things, with the crimes of the “final solution” and with the extermination of the Jews of Europe, homosexuals, and gypsies?
Naturally I would, assuming that the defense of Hitler were the aspiration of any lawyer worthy of the name, in terms of virtuosity in judicial matters and not in terms of virtuosity in climbing the social ladder. In preparing such a case for trial, the defense would need to be based not on Mein Kampf, a circumstantial work of platitudes common to all forms of racism during that period, but rather upon conversations collected with accuracy and precision by Martin Bormann. They reveal a hero like those created by Dostoevsky, a man possessed, a Stavrogin capable of bringing all of his offenses against the prevailing morality to fruition, far more concerned with aesthetics than with rationality. Hitler is a perfect example of the ambiguous personality positioned to provide a basis for the most contradictory of myths.
April 2009: Osama Bin Laden has just been captured by the US army in the mountains of Pakistan on the border with Afghanistan. He puts up no resistance. He chooses you as his defense counsel. Would you accept? How would you conduct the “rupture defense” for the man responsible for September 11th? What would you prepare as a line of defense?
There is no doubt I would accept. In this case, the line of defense is an easy one. You in the West occupy part of the Muslim community materially, and the totality, spiritually, because all the Heads of State and Kings are pawns under your control. We wage war against you, just as you bring war against us. The attacks that we commit are no different from the bombings and embargoes suffered by our civilian victims.
After the invasion of Iraq by the US army, a news flash announces that in a country in North Africa, a movement is underway to bring the most powerful man in the world, the American President George W. Bush, to trial. Naturally, a trial of this kind would be impossible today except in one place: on the stage of a theatre. Even more, it would not be possible in a state-owned theatre, but only in a private theatre, the Théâtre de la Madeleine. You have declared that you would assume Bush’s defense. On what would you base his defense? What explanations would you give for the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq and for Guantanamo Bay? Once again, in this case what would you use as your “rupture defense” in a case against George Bush?
A trial against Bush could not be a “rupture defense” case because his actions are in line with Western moral ethics. There is a world of Good, which is ours, and a world of Evil, that of the others, and the planet is too small for both to coexist. It is essential that one of the two be eliminated. Since we are the stronger force, the other world must be the one to disappear. And it is by no means surprising that our methods are not coherent with what we state we believe in, because in conditions of war, the rules that are applied are not those that exist in times of normality.
It might strike the public that what has served as the recurring theme of your career as a defense counsel in a long series of contradictory cases are the pressing questions levied against the certitudes and good faith of the Western world. It is almost as if you wanted to force world leaders to look themselves in the mirror. If you look back on your life, has this been your guideline? Consciously or unconsciously? Or do you feel that this judgment is a little too reductive?
Just as Aragon felt that Tolstoy was the mirror of the Russian revolution, and Chrétien de Troyes was the reflection of the Feudal system, its traditions, its greatness, and its weaknesses, the modern trial by jury can be considered the mirror of our society. Every period in history has the mirror it deserves, but beauty can exist in the hideous, and Goya is no less a human being than is Raffaello.
Does the playful, aesthetic approach that has become your hallmark reveal a certain detachment with regard to the search for truth? And if this is the case, does this signify that, in your view, truth does not exist? Or does it mean that you feel that a number of forms of truth can coexist in relation to the same action, none of which is truer than another?
Here I must quote Pascal: “Truth on this side of the Pyrenees, error on the other side.” No actual truth can emerge as the result of a trial, because more important than the facts ... is the man, and that man eludes the blurred magnifying glass of our judges and the binary logic of the examining lawyers. This is the origin of the wonderful ambiguity of the protagonists in all successful trials, capable of all forms of metamorphosis. Joan of Arc, commander of an army, transformed into a witch …only to become a saint. The smuggler Mandrin became a knight without a king; the anarchist Raymond la Science is not the same person when seen through the eyes of a banker or of the working class.
When you state that the role of the defense counsel should go so far as to give some meaning to the life of the accused, doesn’t that unmask you as an unexpected humanist?
If, by humanism, you intend the fact of considering human beings as a unique end in themselves, then yes, I am a humanist. But when humanism becomes humanitarianism, and that humanitarianism provides the right to judge others based on the ideal image one has of oneself, then I am not a humanist. The true humanist is a pacifist. The “humanitarian” is an aggressor in good faith.