The Devil's Advocate

<B>Morley Safer</B> Interviews Saddam's Lawyer

Even as fighting continues in Iraq, the United States is helping the Iraqis to prepare for the trial of Saddam Hussein.

No date has been set, but a few days ago, the Iraqi National Congress announced that a war crimes tribunal has been established to try Saddam.

But who would defend such a man? The answer is easy. Jacques Verges, an 80-year-old French lawyer, is known as "The Devil's Advocate," for his spirited defense of some of the worst monsters of our time.

Though he rarely wins his cases, he often succeeds in turning the tables, putting the accusers on trial, and putting them in the same boat as the bloodiest of defendants. Correspondent Morley Safer reports.

That certainly will be Verges' tactic in defending Saddam Hussein: to attempt to indict the United States for its years of support of Saddam's Iraq. And to achieve that, he says that he will call such witnesses as U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Verges loves the role of troublemaker. Though it's unlikely any of his witnesses would ever appear, he will raise the issue of American support for Saddam for a decade, for shipments of anthrax, and Rumsfeld's goodwill missions to Iraq in 1983 and '84.

"This mass destructive weapons were sold to Iraqi government by the United States. And Mr. Rumsfeld has been one of the man responsible for this sale, for this bargain, for this market," says Verges, who calls Rumsfeld a "traveling salesman" for toxins and poisons.

He's also said that the United States may try to kill Saddam before a trial. "I have this fear," says Verges. "I am not sure. If I express my fear, it's precisely to avoid this."

Verges accuses the United States of being judge, jury and executioner: "Of course, Mr. Bush has said Saddam Hussein is guilty. He just has to be killed. But Mr. George Bush is not a separate judge of humanity. He has no any power in the affairs of justice."

When Saddam's nephew approached Verges to act as one of Saddam's attorneys, he did not hesitate. Saddam Hussein is his kind of client.

Did you see a problem in defending a man who has been accused by many of his own people of killing up to 300,000 people?

" That is a number which surprise me. Well, I know that 500,000 children died in Iraq because of the embargo," says Verges.

And that kind of counter-argument is classic Verges: shifting blame, in this case, to the U.N. embargo of Iraq. The standard Verges tactic is to accuse the accusers. And his client list is a catalogue of the mass murderers of the 20th Century, including Klaus Barbie, the Gestapo chief of the city of Lyons; Khieu Samphan, Pol Pot's accomplice in the murder of almost two million Cambodians; terrorist extraordinaire Carlos the Jackal; and Slobodan Milosevic.

In the annals of law, Verges is unique, and he's been accused, for a good part of his professional life, of being known as "The Devil's Advocate."

"It is the job of the lawyer to defend his client. No problem about that, that's his job. But the problem of Verges is what he does outside the court," says Bernard-Henri Levy, the latest in a long line of French philosopher- celebrity journalists.

Levy detests everything Verges stands for, and says if the trial ever happens, America can expect the worst: "This is what the American people must know because he's going now to plead in favor of Saddam Hussein. And he himself says that the real goal is plead against America, and American government."

But to show American complicity in arming Saddam Hussein -- is that a legitimate purpose?

"First, it has to be proved, first and foremost. Second, it is not the same to deliver the weapons and to launch them and to kill hundreds of thousands of people. It is not the same thing," says Levy.

"If he proves that Mr. Bush or Mr. Chirac bear a part of responsibility, I don't give a damn for that. But what I give a damn for is the victims. My battle in my own life is on the side in the favor of the victim. His battle is in the favor of the butcher, of the murder."

Levy has spent years writing about crimes against humanity and the victims of those crimes. And there was a time, years ago, when Verges was on the same side.

Verges started out as a courageous young attorney, defending Algerians who'd been tortured into confessions by the French military. He also fought the Nazis in World War II as part of the Free French Army.

He was a champion of the left, but in 1983, he took the case that has defined him ever since: the defense of Nazi Gestapo Chief Klaus Barbie. Why did he decide to take the case?

"You know, I am against lynching and lynching is a tendency of the people," says Verges. "And my pride, is when a lynching is in preparation, to stand between the so-called criminal and the lynchers."

The Barbie trial lasted two months. In Barbie's defense, Verges rubbed France's nose in its past, naming those who collaborated with the Germans, the pro-Nazi Vichy government. He maintained that Barbie was no worse than French soldiers who committed atrocities in France's colonial wars.

"He is a fascist. Because anti-democrat, anti-liberal, anti-Jew, and so on," says Levy. "But he's a clever man. You can be a fascist and be a clever man."

Verges reputation was based on defending people who regarded themselves as freedom fighters. Did he hate what Barbie represented? Is he able to hate even the worst of monsters?

"I am not able of hating. I am not able of hating," says Verges. "I am curious to understand. I am – condemning. But I am not hating."

"He probably believes in what he says. But the question is for us why does he defend monsters and only monsters," says Robert Jegaden, who is co-author of the definitive biography of Jacques Verges.

"Why, Mr. Vergès, is he the official, the legal counsel of the monsters? This is a question," says Jegaden, who says Verges was an idealist in his early years. "He lost his convictions. And now, you know, he wants to defend monsters. But the monsters do not ask him to come. He goes to them."

In the case of Barbie, the monster lost, and was convicted on 341 counts…But winning the case was never the point for Verges. The point, he now says, was a history lesson – forcing the French to look into their past.

"This is better for the accused, and for the judges," says Verges. "It is good for society to have this introspection."

In a trial of Saddam Hussein, is Verges trying to put the United States on trial? "What I am criticizing is not United States. Is the actual leaders of United States," says Verges.

And is Verges serving a positive purpose if he succeeds in calling witnesses that demonstrate American complicity?

"If he did only that, it would be a positive result. Of course. But if he takes advantage of this situation to insult the victims, to spit on the dead, to despise the survivor, then it will be a horrible work. A horrible, disgusting work," says Levy. "I cannot say. But this is what he did with Milosevic. This is what he did with Barbie. This is what he did with Carlos the Jackal."

It's also what he will try to do with Saddam Hussein. Saddam is in U.S. custody, and so far, Verges has not been able to contact him.

The trial, when it happens, will be in an Iraqi court with Iraqi judges. But more than this ragged remnant of a man will be on trial.

For the United States, it will be about vindication for going to war. But for many Iraqis, it will be simply about revenge.

"I think it will be a sort of climax of his career. Because everything will be there," says Levy. "Everything will be there. The hatred of America. Not Bush. Bush is not America, of America itself. And his hatred of democracy in general. All of this together will gather on the Saddam Hussein case."

"You know, it's very interesting among a certain people in the American administration," says Safer to Verges. "They will say, 'Well, isn't it typical that it would be a Frenchman who defends Saddam Hussein … proof that the French are perfidious."

"From this point of view, as a French -- I have no complex about this, of inferiority. And I try to have no complex of superiority," says Verges, laughing.

There is still no date for a trial, but a fight has already begun among the lawyers. A Jordanian attorney, who says Saddam's wife retained him, maintains that he, not Verges, is in charge of the defense.

Verges, hired by Saddam's nephew, dismisses the claim. The question of where the legal fees will come from remains a mystery, but it's said Saddam's net worth was in the billions.