Jacques Vergès 1968

The Technique of the Political Trial

Source: De la Stratégie Judiciaire. Paris, Éditions de Minuit, 1968;
Translated: by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) marxists.org 2018.

The fundamental distinction that determines the style of a penal trial is the attitude of the accused in the face of public order. If he accepts it the trial is possible, consisting of a dialogue between the accused who explains himself and the judge whose values are accepted. If he refuses it, the judicial apparatus falls apart, it is a trial that refuses the legitimacy of authority, one of total rupture... For years the trials of the defendants of the FLN filled the front pages of the French and often the international press and provoked street demonstrations and debates in parliament. Through these many turbulent trails the ideas of the revolution took on flesh and a human face, providing the masses of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and even the Western left with the face of heroes of today, people stronger than death and torture. The militants put on trial expressed through simple gestures and with the mildest words the ideals of the revolution of the twentieth century, the great mutation in the world of today. This is not the place to again evoke their faces, but rather to attempt to draw lessons from their collective experience that are still useful for imprisoned militants.

They won because:

  1. The overwhelming majority of them had confidence in their cause, and there was some merit in feeling this way when the head of the Soviet state could declare to the general secretary of the French Socialist Party that the Algerian question was a purely French one and when the Arab countries themselves were putting barely hidden pressure on the FLN to put an end to its “adventure.”
  2. For this reason they, with a few rare exceptions, “took the risk,” as Socrates said, and didn’t calculate the cost of victory. Despite the violence of the repression they faced and despite the conciliatory pressure of their progressive French allies of all stripes, they defended without deviating both the platform and the methods of struggle of the FLN.
  3. They didn’t allow themselves to be isolated from the revolution in order to accept a purely individual “defense of connivance.”
  4. They refused any dialogue with the prosecution, even when this was presented to them as a tactic. This was the sole reason behind the “rupture defense” of the Jeanson Network. “I shit on you,” one of them said to the government representative.
  5. Taking up Carlyle’s asserion that “When order means slavery and oppression, disorder is the beginning of justice and freedom,” they opposed the simpler and stronger logic of people who refuse colonial slavery to the prosecution’s formal logic.
  6. They knew when it as necessary to change judicial battlefields and impose their own. The second trial of El-Halia [1] took place less on the judicial terrain of the counter-autopsy of the French victims [2] than on the political counter-accusation of genocide leveled against the army of repression.
  7. When necessary they knew to internationalize the debate in order to change the balance of forces by concentrating their efforts on the most important zones of the moment: the Arab countries, the socialist countries, and the UN and international organizations. Even the pope and Arthur Koestler intervened to protest against this or that aspect of repression.
  8. They knew how to utilize all the modern weapons of information: publishing, the press, radio, television, and film. Books translated into a dozen languages, a film distributed to millions of spectators, a special press with a circulation in the tens of thousands contributed to popularizing via the trials the struggle of the Algerian people to the four corners of the globe.
  9. All those who carried out the judicial combat following these rules won, not only politically but on the personal level. The women who planted the bombs in Algiers, the saboteurs of the Organization Spéciale in France, none of whom were executed after having engaged in an uncompromising trial, again demonstrated that in our time and from the personal point of view a defense that refuses the legitimacy of those in authority is the most effective one.

1. Site in Algeria of a massacre of European settlers by Algerian rebels on August 20, 1955

2. Autopsies requested by the defense proved that the accused Algerians did not commit the acts they had confessed to under torture.