Sunday, January 11, 2009

Lawyer’s Reunion

Years ago I was reading through "Indiana", the first book published under the pen name George Sand (in real life by Aurore Dupin, also known as Baroness Dudevant). George Sand is of course known as having been the mistress of Frederic Chopin, but she was also a famous writer and feminist. I was intrigued by one of the settings in the book, as it speaks of a tropical island of Bourbon. Being a geography buff since childhood, I had never heard of such an island. The book mentions that there are two volcanoes on it. The web search engines were in their infancy and I didn't get very far. One interpretation I read claimed that the place existed only in the author's imagination. I went through all the world atlases I have (every single major one printed is in our bookcases) and finally discovered the island of Réunion in the middle of the Indian Ocean that indeed had two volcanoes and still was an overseas territory of France. Off to a French web site that gave the history of the island and indeed the place had been known as Île Boubon twice, after the royal house. What made the place even more fascinating was the fact that the island is situated almost exactly on the opposite side of Seattle on the globe. Since it is still a part of France, it is also a member of the EU and the euro is used as currency. Its only neighbor is the island of Mauritius. A vote was taken on both islands ; Mauritius chose independence from Britain but Réunion decided to remain French.

Every so often Réunion pops up in the news. Not long ago it had a terrible epidemic of Chikungunya, a mosquito-born arbovirus that left over two hundred dead on the island of less than 800,000 in 2005-06. More recently an article in Der Spiegel caught my eye. It was about a French lawyer, Jacques Vergès, who has been defending terrorists for many decades. He was raised in Réunion, having been born in Thailand from a French father and a Vietnamese mother. At first the story upset me but I read it a second time, then a third and I began to understand. I made my wife Marjorie read it, too, and her initial reaction was even stronger than mine, especially after learning that Mr. Vergès had been Klaus Barbie's attorney in the late 1980s. Klaus Barbie was of course the Butcher of Lyon who after the war worked for the U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps, escaped to Bolivia via Argentina, took the name Klaus Altmann and ended up providing weapons to Israel after the Six Day War, and the ensuing trade embargo. A few days ago a DVD from the library showed up here, titled Terror's Advocate. It is a French documentary which helps to illuminate the controversial character of Jacques Vergès.

It turned out that the German article was nothing but a synopsis of the film. The English title is purposely somewhat misleading as "advocate" simply refers to an attorney and a lawyer in a few locations, such as Scotland, South Africa and, of course, France. Clearly Mr. Vergès had a leftist and an anti-colonial viewpoint. On the island a "colored" person was a second class citizen and had to step aside to give right-of-way to a white person walking. The young attorney began practicing law in Algeria and ended up defending women who had placed bombs for the independence movement. He fell in love with his most famous client, Djamila Bouhired, who initially was sentenced to death but whose sentence was commuted to life in hard labor, thanks to the international pressure Mr. Vergès was able to create. She was later freed as Algeria became independent and the two married, although the union didn't last long. In the documentary Jacques Vergès emerges as a very intelligent and sympathetic person but somewhat full of himself, perhaps for a reason. After vanishing from the face of the earth for eight years (obituaries were written, nobody knows where he was and what he was doing during that time), he reappeared and offered to represent Klaus Barbie. At the trial the prosecution featured 39 lawyers, Mr. Vergès was alone. Yet he managed to draw parallels to France's colonial past and practice, proving that it wasn't all that different from what took in place during the Vichy years. Yes, Mr. Barbie was sentenced to life in prison but many of the most serious charges were dismissed. Never claiming that his client was innocent, the attorney nevertheless managed to outsmart the government's army of prosecutors. Barbie died just a few years later in prison of leukemia. The interviewer asked Jacques Vergès if he would have defended Adolf Hitler and his reply was: "I would even defend Bush, but only if he admitted his guilt first."

It is interesting that a defense attorney doesn't view his client "innocent" or try to solicit such a verdict from a jury and a court of law. In this country of ours one is either guilty or innocent, even if the truth is somewhere in between. Mr. Vergès seems to believe that even the worst terrorist has a right for a defense, and if no one else is willing to accept the task, he will. He is a very smart man and able to convince even his enemies. Had I had his legal help years ago, some prominent members of society would have no doubt fallen from grace and perhaps ended up behind bars with other monsters. One can always dream.

Distant as it is, I have a feeling one day in my retirement I'll be able to travel to the mysterious island with the two volcanoes.

in photos: George Sand, Réunion from space, Jacques Vergès