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COLUMN ONE : Proud to Be 'the Devil's Advocate' : Jacques Verges is one of the most mysterious, feared and detested lawyers in France. He has embraced a clientele that includes Klaus Barbie, African dictators and now Carlos the Jackal.

November 26, 1994|SCOTT KRAFT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PARIS — Once every few weeks, Carlos the Jackal is brought from prison to the office of France's top terrorist investigator for questioning. And it's always a game. Carlos chatters aimlessly, tries to make his interrogator laugh, asks impertinent questions and answers none himself.

But the most controversial--some say most dangerous--man in the room isn't the notorious international terrorist but rather his lawyer, Jacques Verges. The attorney, expressionless behind wire-rimmed glasses, doesn't move and rarely utters a word.

"He is a terrorist, no better than Carlos," said a top French official, who is always present during the sessions. "You can try to manipulate him, but Verges is very dangerous."

Indeed, 69-year-old Jacques Verges is one of the most mysterious, but also most feared and even detested, lawyers in France, if not the world.

Often called "the Devil's Advocate," he wears the title proudly. His cast of clients has included the "Butcher of Lyon," Klaus Barbie, as well as African dictators, Algerian revolutionaries, crooked French policemen and Palestinian terrorists.

The short, stocky lawyer with slicked-back black hair has represented, with what some consider to be unseemly delight, some of this country's most unsavory characters. In nearly four decades of legal practice, he has seen 150 of his clients sentenced to death--though, he hastens to point out, not one has been executed. Of course, France no longer has a death penalty.

"A man is never all black or all white," Verges said, defending his decision to represent such notorious figures. "In the heart of the worst criminal there is always a secret garden. And in the heart of the most honest man, a nest of the most terrible reptiles."

Now Verges has a new case and a new public platform. Carlos the Jackal, the 45-year-old Venezuelan whose real name is Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, was arrested in Sudan in August and brought to France, amid great fanfare, to face terrorism charges covering nearly 20 years.

When Carlos first appeared in court here, he appointed Verges as his attorney because, he told the judge, "he's a bigger terrorist than I am."

"What is he referring to?" the judge asked Verges.

"Your honor, I think he may be referring to my ideas," the attorney replied.

Later, Verges told a reporter, "Carlos is an extremely courteous man. I think it was a tribute to the fact that the battle of ideas is as dangerous--no, not as dangerous, but as important--as that of bombs."

Carlos sealed his international reputation in 1975, when he kidnaped 11 oil ministers from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries during a meeting in Vienna and killed three guards. He took the hostages to Algeria, releasing them unharmed after receiving $20 million in ransom.

In France, Carlos is accused of killing two French counterintelligence agents who came to arrest him at his hide-out in Paris in 1975. He also faces charges of masterminding four terrorist attacks that killed 12 people and injured dozens in France, and of assassinating the French ambassador to Lebanon, all in the early 1980s.

He was sentenced to life in prison, in absentia, in France in 1992, but under French law he will have to be retried. Verges argues that France has no proof of Carlos' links to terrorist bombings, although he acknowledges his client is vulnerable on the charge of killing the intelligence agents.

But it will be several years before Carlos appears in any court. Verges is launching a stiff legal challenge to Carlos' arrest and extradition. And until that is resolved, he said, Carlos is refusing to answer investigators' questions.

Verges and Carlos have a long, murky relationship. Though Verges maintains that the two first met in August, when Carlos was brought to France, they had been in contact, at least through intermediaries, since the mid-1980s.

That was when Verges took the case of two of Carlos' top associates: his girlfriend, Magdalena Kopp, a former German Red Army Faction member, and Bruno Breguet. During the pair's trial on weapons possession charges, Carlos sent a letter to the French government, threatening unspecified actions unless they were released. Soon after the letter arrived, two bombs exploded in France, killing six.

Kopp and Breguet, whom Verges called "soldiers in a noble cause," were convicted of terrorist acts in 1983 and sent to prison, where Kopp knitted sweaters for Verges. When Kopp was freed two years later, she and Carlos were married.

But Verges is the figure in the Carlos affair who most fascinates the French. What shocks them is that he seems to like his clients and even admire them.

Verges describes Carlos, for example, as "a man of taste . . . who feels at home in a dinner jacket" and for whom "I have nothing but respect."

During the trial of Barbie, the former Nazi captain who was convicted of crimes against humanity, Verges addressed him as "mon capitaine" and refrained from smoking in his presence "because he outranks me."

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