Counsel for Saddam not afraid to court controversy

To many minds, Jacques Vergès has the client list from hell. Ranging from Carlos the Jackal to Klaus Barbie, via controversial figures from the Khmer Rouge, the PLO and the Algerian Front for National Liberation, it is being rounded off with Saddam Hussein.

There was stiff competition for the mandate. Since Mr Hussein's arrest in December, more than 1,500 attorneys, mostly from the Arab world, but also from France, Switzerland and the UK, have come forward to say they want to help defend the toppled Iraqi president.

The 79-year-old Frenchman volunteered his services within days of Mr Hussein's arrest. The answer came back a few weeks later with a letter from Mr Hussein's nephew, Ali Barzane Al-Tikriti, who later confirmed the mission at a meeting in Geneva. Mr Vergès has had no access to Mr Hussein, said to be in Qatar, and is being paid "minimum fees" to cover expenses by unnamed friends and allies of the former dictator.

His approach surprised few familiar with a turbulent career that has seen the undoubtedly brilliant international lawyer defend the causes that others will not touch. To some, Mr Vergès is a publicity-seeking showman. A biography by Bernard Violet says that "hiding behind the mask of an international lawyer is a mercenary of the law with an almost megalomaniacal need for recognition".

In a hostile essay entitled The Saddam Circus is Coming to Town, Michael Radu of the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, says: "Vergès's involvement ensures the trial has all the potential of becoming an international ideological and political three-ring circus."

In an interview with the FT, Mr Vergès puts it differently: "In a democracy, everybody has a right to be defended and nobody can be called guilty before a judgment by a fair court.

"Using the media is a vital part of the defence of those targeted by the system."

Born to a Vietnamese mother, the ardent communist - he met Mao and was a friend of the late Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot - has been a ground-breaker for radical lawyers the world over. Using aggressive court-room tactics, he has turned countless individual trials into uncontrollable forums for anti-imperialist agitation and for the exposure of the double standards of modern-day realpolitik.

In France this insider is cautiously handled, but generally respected. Several of his books have been published by Plon, home to the works of General Charles de Gaulle, and he is on first-name terms with the president of the French constitutional court, Pierre Mazeau, who interrupts our lunch to discuss "a common project".

In coming weeks the Vergès defence plan will roll into action. "Saddam's nephew is not concerned about the trial, as he, like me, believes there is no prospect of that happening, soon," says Mr Vergès. "There are many lawyers who can prepare for an eventual trial. My mission is to draw attention to the danger of his being killed before trial and to ensure his rights are respected."

Mr Hussein was visited in February by the Red Cross, which is responsible for overseeing the treatment of prisoners of war worldwide, but Mr Vergès insists he is still at risk of being killed pre-trial. "It will look like a stroke or a heart attack and a thousand doctors will diagnose a natural death."

For Mr Vergès the best defence is to attack. First stop is The Hague, where he plans to ask the International Criminal Court to enforce the ousted Iraqi leader's rights to a lawyer and a doctor under the Geneva Convention. This could expose fresh divisions among the occupying powers. The US has refused to recognise the ICC, but other coalition countries, including the UK, have.

Mr Vergès plans more embarrassment for the US. Three weeks ago, he says, an anonymous informer handed him a dossier containing US approval of arms sales to Iraq, transcripts of conversations with Henry Kissinger, and CIA briefings dating back to the 1960s.

Mr Vergès says: "The US knows any trial of Saddam based on use of WMD [weapons of mass destruction] is hard, as they were sold to Iraq by the US and defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld had an important role. If you are going to pursue the Iraqi leaders for using WMD, then you must also pursue those who supplied them."

Iraqi officials announced last week that they had set up a tribunal to try Mr Hussein and other members of his regime. But no date has been set and charges have not been laid.

Mr Vergès says the tribunal will deal only with low-level cases - "soldiers who raped women, and so on, because the US has not thought through where, when or how to hold a trial for Saddam Hussein".

When Mr Hussein's turn comes, however, Mr Vergès will be ready and waiting.

[Source: Jo Johnson, Financial Times, London, 27Apr04]

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