The Devil’s Advocate

Eva Dadrian , Monday 30 Jan 2012

Ahram Online investigates the careers of Mubarak's defence lawyer Farid El-Deeb and the original 'Devil's Advocate' Jacques Vergès to understand why they 'defend the indefensible'

Farid El-Deeb, the lawyer for former president Hosni Mubarak and his two sons, began the defence of his client by speaking about Mubarak’s achievements and saying that Mubarak was a fair man and was neither bloodthirsty nor despotic.

The trial of the ousted president and his two sons is being held at the Police Academy, which since last August has been serving as a courthouse.

Having praised Mubarak as a patriot with an “honourable past,” El-Deeb then directed a fierce attack on the prosecution, criticising it for proceeding in an “inappropriate and offensive” manner and accusing it of “hurting” Mubarak’s feelings.

By leading the defence in what has become to be known as the “trial of the century,” El-Deeb is on his way to become the “Devil’s Advocate of the century” and by doing so, stepping in the footsteps of another devil’s advocate, the famous French lawyer Jacques Vergès.

Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia, tells us that a devil's advocate is someone who, “given a certain argument, takes a position he or she does not necessarily agree with, just for the sake of argument.” It also says that by “taking such a position, the individual taking on the devil's advocate role seeks to engage others in an argumentative discussion process. The purpose of such a process is typically to test the quality of the original argument and identify weaknesses in its structure and to use such information to either improve or abandon the original, opposing position.”

Vergès made his name as a lawyer when in 1957 he took up the defence of Djamila Bouhired, the young female Algerian resistance fighter accused of bombing a cafe in which dozens of French people died. Bouhired was arrested, tortured by the French authorities and sentenced to death.

Thanks to a massive public campaign, led by Vergès himself, Djamila Bouhired was pardoned and freed. When released from prison in 1962, Djamila Bouhired married the young lawyer who had saved her from the gallows.

Vergès’ list of notorious clients is impressive and includes, among many others, Pol Pot, the Cambodian Khmer leader responsible for the death of more than 21 per cent of his own people; “Carlos the Jackal,” the international terrorist who was betrayed by the authorities in Sudan where he had found refuge, and Nazi fugitive Klaus Barbie, known as the Butcher of Lyon (1942-44) and responsible for the deaths of thousands of French men, women and children.

During the defence of Djamila Bouhired the young lawyer introduced for the first his famous “defence de rupture” (rupture strategy) or the principle of launching a defence with a political counter-attack and thus reversing the situation in court.

Setting a precedent and marking for ever defence procedures in court, Vergès used the same defensive strategy in each of his “defence of the indefensible” trials.

Now, in the courtroom of the Police Academy Farid El Deeb is using the same strategy that made Vergès’ reputation as the Devil’s Advocate
by accusing the prosecution of “hurting” the feelings of Mubarak and also of “inappropriate behaviour” El-Deeb is in fact testing “the quality of the original argument” and identifying “weakness in its structure.”

El-Deeb’s first argument in the defence of his client is that a civilian court cannot try Mubarak on charges of making illicit gains, abusing his authority and ordering the shooting of peaceful demonstrators last January.  El-Deeb identified the weakness of the “argument” or the weakness of the accusation against his client, by referring to a law adopted in 1979 which says that “senior military officers are exempt from going into retirement and that even when they take up a civilian position they retain their military rank.” Therefore, says El-Deeb, according to that law Mubarak rejoined the ranks of the army after he resigned as president on 11 February, 2011

Like Vergès, El-Deeb is known to have taken up “sensational” cases that attracted media interest and divided public opinion and are all politically tinted, such as the case of Hisham Talaat, the Egyptian business tycoon who was sentenced to death in 2009 for hiring a hit man to kill Lebanese singer Suzanne Tamim with whom Talaat was romantically involved.

Today El-Deeb is defending former president Mubarak, yet back in 2005 he stood in court against the Mubarak regime when he defended Ayman Nour, the unfortunate runner-up in Egypt's 2005 presidential elections. Nour was accused of allegedly forging party documents and sentenced to five years in jail.  

Another of his notorious clients was Azzam Azzam, the Israeli Druze textile worker who was accused of spying for Israel in the mid 1990s.

Why have these two lawyers – Vergès and El-Deeb – put their reputation and career at risk by “defending the indefensible?" Have they ever thought that they may be undermining their own career by doing so? Have they agreed to defend such notorious people for the sake of money or maybe for glory? Have they considered these cases to be a challenge not to refuse? Did they believe that the committed crime was worth defending just for the sake of justice?

To defend the indefensible is often considered an ethical paradox, however, to refuse the defence of a criminal, a terrorist or a dictator, a lawyer would be rejecting the compelling principle of democracy that gives every single person the right to justice. Back in 2008, giving an interview to the German magazine Der Spiegel, Vergès clarified this ethical paradox by saying “I believe that everyone, no matter what he may have done, has the right to a fair trial.”

Looking specifically into the case of Azzam Azzam – a man accused of spying for Israel – it is obvious that El-Deeb was taking enormous risks. In the mid-1990s, El-Deeb was still a relatively young lawyer, so why did he put his nascent career at risk? Did he do it for fame or for money?

The fact is that while El-Deeb brought upon himself the ire of his peers who accused him of “polluting the distinguished history of the Lawyers’ Syndicate” for defending an Israeli spy, he was abiding by the basic principle of democracy that every single person has the right to justice.

Jacques Vergès has not become the most renowned Devil’s Advocate in the world because he was after glory or money. From a very young age Vergès was a militant and a political activist and until today, after a career of more than 50 years, he is still guided by the same principle that every single case has significance and should be dealt with the sole objective that observes his political commitment: to challenge the establishment and its hypocrisy. It may be said that the flamboyant lawyer got a great deal of personal satisfaction every time he challenged the establishment.
Having made a lifetime profession of fighting lost cases and unpopular battles with the same gusto, vehemence and commitment, Vergès defended rightwing as well as leftwing militants, alleged terrorists, war criminals and genocide perpetrators.

To some extend we could admit that El-Deeb’s career is as colourful as that of Jacques Vergès, and if El-Deeb is modelling his defence on the defensive strategy of his French model, the Egyptian has still a long way to go to acquire the same political and controversial stature of the man he is trying to emulate.
Lawyers who take up indefensible cases always defend the interests of their client to the utmost of their ability. They always try to secure the least damaging verdict from the tribunal and often work on a reasonable plea deal for their client.

Thanks to a legal technicality, El-Deeb succeeded in reversing Hisham Talaat’s death sentence to 15 years imprisonment, but will El-Deeb succeed in working either a “reasonable plea” or finding a legal loophole in Mubarak’s case? And how would the Mubarak trial end? What would be the sentence?

Whichever way the verdict goes, let’s reflect a moment on this comment by Jacques Vergès: “The beauty of a trial can be measured by the trail it leaves behind, long after the sentence has been pronounced.”

The writer is an independent broadcaster and risk Analyst for print and broadcast media

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