Jacques Vergès 1990

The Defense of Djamila Bouhired

Source: Jacques Vergès and Jean Louis Remilleux, Le Salud Lumineux. Paris, Edition No. 1/Michel Lafon, 1990;
Translated: by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) marxists.org 2014.

How did you defend Djamila Bouhired?

Starting with this trial a divergence was established between the classic defense of the French left and mine. For me it’s not a matter of convincing people we'll never convince, that is, officers. If someone admits, “I planted a bomb, I regret it and I ask for pardon” this person will be viewed by officers with more consideration than someone who shouts: “You have no proof that I planted the bomb, but I'm ready to place one and I approve these attacks.” The second is a definitive enemy, even if he is innocent; the other is no longer an enemy; he’s recuperable since he bends the knee.

The problem was thus no longer to prove innocence or guilt before the judges, but to know whether one is playing at repentance or not. It wasn’t a matter of convincing military magistrates, but of appealing to public opinion. And which public opinion? Not the predominant opinion in Algeria, that of the Pieds-Noirs, which was hostile to these militants, but Algerian and above all international public opinion, relayed by French public opinion.

Under these conditions the trial would become tumultuous. The more violent the attacks in the pied noir press, the more Algerian public opinion would recognize itself in the defendants. And the noisier the trial, the more the defense’s accusations of torture would be amplified and taken up by the international press. This was the strategy that I instinctively carried out during the trial. And this trial would soon have a great impact in France. In France, the reports that the writer Georges Arnaud read in the “Echo d'Alger” shook him terribly and he made contact with me and decided to write a pamphlet in favor of Djamila Bouhired.

The affair also had a great echo in Arab opinion. A film was made about the trial in Cairo. In fact, and it must be said with all due modesty, in these circumstances the lawyer doesn’t create a character, but he reveals it to the world. Every resistance, every revolution needs, at a given moment, to give itself a face. After the last war all those who were communist sympathizers, like myself, whenever they spoke of the Resistance of the Soviet partisans recalled he young heroes hung by the Germans. The Soviets gave the face of Zoya Kosmodemianskaya to their thousands of young female partisans. In France the Communist Party gave its thousands of young partisans the face of Guy Moquet, executed at Châteaubriant by the Germans. The Algerians would from that point on see themselves in the face of Djamila Bouhired.

In this trial the entire strategy of the defense collective of the FLN already makes an appearance: the strategy of rupture, the appeal to international opinion, the abrupt manner of posing problems in order to give the trial the impact it deserves.

As for the word “terrorist” applied to the attacks committed by Resistance fighters against the occupation forces, it’s a name that was given under the Occupation by the Germans to those who planted bombs, that is, to French Resistance fighters. The word “terrorism” shocks and angers. And yet, I recall having met “terrorists” who came from France to join the Forces Françaises Libres after having committed many attacks. I had a great, a justified admiration for them. They risked being arrested by the Germans, being tortured and killed... Well, I find this “terrorism” again during the War in Algeria. What is the difference between an aviator who bombs, with no risk, a village and destroys it, and a militant who, at the risk of his life, places a bomb in a public place and kills ten or a hundred times fewer people? I see no difference on the moral plain. ...

Let’s return to Djamila Bouhired. I have here accounts of her trial before the military tribunal of Algiers on August 11, 1957. She is presented as the soul of terrorism in Algiers. It is said of her dossier that it is “the most important affair among those that the military tribunal of Algiers will speak of.” Her fellow defendants were of equal importance, since there were also makers of time bombs, chemists, a carpenter who was in charge of making boxes to contain bombs, “a lovely crowd,” as Henri Michaux would say. Who exactly was Djamila Bouhired?

She was a person with a great influence over the entire group of the Autonomous Zone of Algiers. They were passing through a very difficult period, living in terror, and that terror was felt all the more by those who lived underground, risking torture and death. She was closely connected to the leadership of the Autonomous Zone of Algiers. I thus had to enter into contact with the leaders of that zone who discussed with me the actions to be taken so she could get out of her imprisonment and finally be presented before the judge.

In the beginning her appeal was rejected. She was sentenced to death, right?

She was pardoned by President René Coty. And yet, I hadn’t submitted an appeal. The pardons commission was convened and I was asked to submit a request, but I refused.


Because my client felt there was no pardon to be asked for from the French authorities and that on principle a combatant doesn’t ask for pardon. There was a great deal of pressure placed on me. I was going to bear a grave responsibility if she was executed, but I supported Djamila Bouhired in her decision.

Even so, I went to the Higher Council of the Magistracy to examine the dossier. I had no intention of requesting a pardon for Djamila behind her back, but I had the right to examine the dossier in case the head of state were to summon me. There was an immense office there full of postal bundles with telegrams from all over the world asking that Djamila be pardoned, messages coming from everywhere, from Scandinavia and Indonesia, from Germany – both East and West- , from England and Chile, from all the Arab countries; appeals from city councils, from democratic organizations, like the Women’s Union from this place, trade unions from that place, from union federations and local ones. How is it that all these messages arrived at that moment? Because I'd issued a declaration announcing that my client risked execution from one day to the next, which was the truth. This appeal through the press agencies was distributed everywhere and had created a sentiment that had spread.

I told you that a trial doesn’t end at the tribunal or when the sentence is handed down. The beauty and success of a trial are judged by the wake it leaves long after its final session.

What arguments did you make in your defense plea for Djamila?

The arguments I used were quite simple:

1- You accuse her of having committed these attacks and you have no proof of this;

2- In order to present proof you fabricated forgeries and tortured people in the most ignoble fashion;

3- The defendant is a patriot; she wants the independence of her country and the arms the Algerians use are the arms the French Resistance used. And so you are not qualified to judge her, and it is they who are the accusers...

You are accused of fraternizing with your clients. But you went much further, since you married Djamila Bouhired!

Political prisoners have always been respected in France, that is those who fight disinterestedly for a cause. They have always been respected, even if the methods they use have been condemned. It’s only since the end of the Fourth and the beginning of the Fifth Republics that political prisoners are scorned, that they are considered political prisoners who should be treated more harshly than the others. This demonstrates a degeneration of our democracy. In a democracy worthy of its name one respects his political enemy.